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Over the next 18 months, a UK aid agency and charity will support the provision of eye disease scientists and mentoring to developing countries, in response to what experts say is a growing need for innovative approaches to healthcare.

Sightsavers, which works to eliminate avoidable blindness, has provided grants to projects across Africa and South Asia. Grants went to international non-profit organisations, academic institutions and non-governmental organisations in developing countries.

The grants are funded by the UK Department of International Development's innovation grant programme.  They come at a time of growing international governmental support for small grants to support new development approaches: USAID is budgeting US$86 million for its IDEA innovation funding project; and AusAid has recently granted funds of around 30 per cent of its health research budget for studying innovative health care approaches in the Pacific.

The UK-funded projects will research new strategies for treating diseases that can cause blindness, and each will have a research element to enable teams to test ideas, as well as to determine whether they can be scaled up for use in further countries.  

"If five [projects] are genuinely successful, that would be a good outcome," said Dominic Haslam, director of policy and strategic programme support at Sightsavers

Sightsavers will maintain an "active partnership" with projects, and expects some of the grant holders to come back in a few months to "tweak" their projects, Haslam said.

He added that although the projects have a "higher risk" of failing than do projects that have a track record of success, the risk is worthwhile if it results in new approaches to disease that can be scaled up to serve many patients.

"We [development professionals] need to provide incentive venture capital to areas that are under-resourced," Michael Loevinsohn, a research fellow and epidemiologist at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University, told SciDev.Net. "You need a lot of good guesses to see if any [new healthcare ideas] will succeed."

One of the projects funded by the DFID-Sightsavers grant is a tool kit for training water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) workers on issues related to water and soil-borne neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Run by the International Trachoma Initiative (ITI), the project aims to unite two disciplines — water and sanitation engineering and neglected tropical disease prevention — to combat issues that were are usually approached separately by scientists.

Another Sightsavers grant, awarded to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) will finance mentoring for eye surgeons in East Africa, and help them to improve the quality of cataract surgery. In Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, around two per cent of people aged over 50 are blind; about half of this blindness is caused by cataracts, according to studies provided by Robert Lindfield, a LSHTM lecturer.

"Universally [cataract] surgery isn't that good and there's a real need [for improvement]," Lindfield told SciDev.Net.

Amos Twinamasiko, an associate professor at the Mbarara University of Science and Technology, in Uganda, and executive board member of the Eastern Africa College of Opthamologists, a partner with LSHTM in the project, told SciDev.Net that the project aims to forge conditions where "people will go to normal clinics for surgery but [the surgeons] will do it in a better, coordinated way".

But Manthan Janodia, an associate professor of pharmacy management at the Manipal College of Pharmaceutical Sciences, India, who is not involved with the project, warned that "one of the problems with short term funding projects is that if clear goals are not set, funds may not be utilised properly".