That's a Wrap, Says `Condom King', but dreams live on
After a lifetime of grand ambitions and major successes that have saved the lives of thousands, Mechai Viravaidya is ready to hand over the reins of his latest initiative _ a new approach to improve education and combat rural poverty _ but his passion for social betterment is unlikely to fade anytime soon
He's been chasing dreams and turning some of them into reality for nearly four decades. And those who know him and his work well realise that Mechai Viravaidya _ known globally as Mr Condom _ will still be chasing dreams and turning them into reality for many years to come.
But at almost 72 he admits he's no spring chicken and says he's looking for two people to take over from him. ``I'm looking for two testicles ... Oops. Let's use words like two hands or two pairs of eyes and ears ... it may be more palatable, `` said Mr Mechai, smiling sheepishly, knowing full well that his comments will draw headlines.
And his replacements don't have to be men. ``My mother was smarter than my father. My wife is smarter than I am. So my replacements can be women but you have to find another way of describing them.''
The former minister, senator and long-time social entrepreneur is not looking for someone to succeed him at the Population and Development Association (PDA). He remains the PDA's chairman and assists in fund-raising but has left others to lead and run the association for the past two years.
Mr Mechai is looking for people to take over and run his latest initiative _ the Mechai Pattana schools, which are part of the Mechai Foundation, and which take a new approach at poverty eradication. ``I want two persons. One is for the development side, and the other for the education side. They can work together,'' he said.
As for qualifications, Mr Mechai hasn't stipulated any. ``I am looking for people with dreams,'' he said.
But it is difficult to imagine that anyone could replace Mr Mechai whose life journey and achievements over the past 38 years have centred on, as he puts it, ``reducing births, reducing deaths, reducing dependency, eradicating poverty and reducing ignorance''.
When Mr Mechai's work through the PDA started in 1974, the average Thai family had seven children. The country's annual population growth rate was 3.3%. The pill was only available via a doctor's prescription. Sex and condoms were taboo subjects.
Mr Mechai changed all that with his innovative public awareness campaigns to popularise condom use. No institutions and no officials were sacred as Mr Mechai got shopkeepers, schools, temples, government agencies and even visiting ministers from foreign countries to join him in promoting condom use.
He developed a global reputation as ``Mr Condom'' or the ``Condom King'' and he had results to prove the effectiveness of his approach. By 2000, the average Thai family had 1.5 children, while the annual population growth rate had shrunk to 0.5%.
Mr Mechai also targeted HIV-Aids, which by the mid-1980s was having a devastating impact on Thailand. For many years the government and the public remained in denial, refusing to admit that they were facing an epidemic.
Mr Mechai only started making real progress in tackling the crisis in 1991 as a minister in the government of Anand Panyarachun. Government spending aimed at promoting preventive measures increased 50-fold and between 1991-2003 and new HIV infections declined by 90% during that time according to UNAIDS. The World Bank estimated that 7.7 million lives were saved during this period.
Mr Mechai's promotion of condom use remains what he is best known for today. ``People still ask me to blow condoms into balloons. People forget that I am much older now,'' he said. However, many do not realise that Mr Mechai also developed a model to reduce non-governmental organisations' dependence on donations.
``I believed that business enterprises could be set up [as separate legal entities] whose objective was to do business and support local NGOs,'' he said. Mr Mechai utilised his high profile to set up PDA's first business, a Cabbages and Condoms restaurant, in 1975 with a personal loan of US$65,000 dollars.
The PDA is now supported by 18 Cabbages and Condoms restaurants, real estate and manufacturing businesses, while the Birds and Bees Resort in Pattaya, which is owned by his daughter, supports the Mechai Pattana School.
Mr Mechai also endeavoured to empower the rural poor to fight poverty in places where the government had failed to do so. To this end, he has established the Village Development Partnership to improve rural villages' long-term financial sustainability. The PDA acts as a middle man between the villages and the private sector by setting up a village development committee. Working on the principle that access to credit is a human right and using labour as collateral, villagers can access finance and loans to start small businesses.
Over more than 20 years, the Village Development Partnership has worked in 800-1,000 villages to promote rural development in the five key areas of community empowerment, income generation, health, environmental conservation and education. The same principles of socioeconomic empowerment were utilised to help areas devastated by the 2004 tsunami recover.
Mr Mechai broadened his scope even further about 10 years ago by taking on problems within the Thai education system, which he felt was marred by an overemphasis on rote learning. Mr Mechai said the traditional approach produces ``parrots and followers'' who are unable to think outside the box.
``The school should be a lifelong learning centre as well as a hub of social and economic advancement for the students, their families and the community,'' Mr Mechai says. His new model would eventually include a teacher training facility as well as an occupational and entrepreneurial training facility. He says such a school should one day help students to find job training opportunities, scholarships and eventually work. And he says this dream cannot be achieved without private sector involvement.
To launch the initiative, Mr Mechai opened the Mechai Pattana Bamboo School in Buri Ram in 2009 and the Mechai Pattana Secondary School in 2012 in Pattaya. Both provide no-cost, private education for children. Parents ``pay'' for their children's education by completing 400 hours of community work and tree-planting.
Each school must set up a Poverty Eradication Farm, where fruit and vegetables are grown to raise funds to help alleviate poverty and train students in business. A certain portion of the funds from the farm is also use to provide loans to parents or villagers who need capital to start businesses. Mr Mechai says the repayment rate is high.
There are now 12 government schools (primary schools up to grade nine) that have adopted the Mechai Pattana school concept and each of these has had private-sector support. But there is a long way to go before this latest dream of Mr Mechai's becomes more widely put into practice.
Mr Mechai says that his new approach has been adopted only in primary schools with about 500 students each. ``We are initiating and assisting in this approach only in schools located close to us,'' he said. So far 11 private companies have provided financial support while three schools are supported by the Mechai Foundation.
``But we need more private companies to become involved. The one-time contribution is 1.2 million baht and it's tax deductible,'' Mr Mechai said.
He added that unlike other corporate social responsibility initiatives which end with a donation, this approach allows companies to see their contribution at work as villagers pull themselves out of poverty and start their own businesses.
Looking back, Mr Mechai says that his only regret is that he didn't focus on improving Thailand's educational system sooner.
``What I love most about education is the involvement with youth. It brings me the greatest joy and I wish I were younger,'' he said.
But one cannot turn back the clock and Mr Mechai quickly returns to talking about the future, about stepping down and finding his successors: ``I would be happy to guide them, to work with them to keep the dream, the inspiration going.''
About the author
- Writer: Pichai Chuensuksawadi