Straight talk from Mechai Viravaidya

Straight talk from Mechai Viravaidya

The legendary public-health campaigner speaks up on ethics, AIDS, and unlicensed drugs

by Ron Morris [This interview was conducted in May, 2001 for the German webzine They have published the German version. This is the original version in English.]

How many founders of NGOs have become legends in their own time? Mechai Viravaidya is one. Twenty-six years ago he founded the Population and Community Development Association (PDA) and embarked on the first successful population control program in a developing country. The voluntary program reduced the average number of children per family from seven to less than two today.

During the 1980's he started an influential program to combat the AIDS epidemic in Thailand head on by promoting condom use. Condom-inflating contests were held and rice farmers were paid to have family-planning slogans posted on their buffalos. Viravaidya himself walked through red-light districts handing out condoms.

His chain of "Cabbages and Condoms" restaurants combine innovative Thai food with a positive attitude about condoms and family planning. The restaurant features humorous condom posters on the walls and t-shirts featuring Winston Churchhill's famous v for victory salute, but in this case it means "stop at two children." Viravaidya's office sports a huge coffee table with condoms under a glass surface. Bouquets of flowers around the PDA offices are decorated with colored condoms. So high-profile was the condom awareness campaign that condoms became know in some quarters as "Mechais."

In another internationally applauded program, the PDA partnered with major corporations to relocate factories near rural villages so local people would not have migrate to the cities for profitable employment.

And as for positions and accolades--you name it and Viravaidya has headed it or been a member. Presently he is a Thai Senator and the UN Ambassador for UNAIDS (Joint UN Programme on HIV-AIDS). He has served as a former cabinet minister and headed dozens of local and international organizations. Half-Thai and half-Scottish, educated in Australia, Viravaidya has made a unique contribution to how NGOs are run. NGO administrators from around the world attend training courses at the PDA's Asian Center to learn the secrets and successes of the Viravaidya approach.

And he's not out of ideas yet. His restaurant chain is planning to expand into eastern Europe, Australia, and the UK and is branching out into packaged Thai foods such as sauces, curries, and honey.

A unique red rice discovered by a farmer is also being marketed to support the PDA. The mutant rice, naturally high in carotene and fiber was crossbred to strengthen the strain and is now about to be exported. The PDA is applying its commitment to improving the plight of the rural poor to this project as well by offering the red-rice farmers the majority of income made from the sale.

According to Viravaidya, the businesses are a necessary way of raising funds. "Most charitable organizations in the Third World will find it hard to survive because donations come and go and donors change their mind. That's their right, of course. So for the last 25 years we've receiving grants and gifts, but at the same time building our own by setting up as separate legal entities companies like 'Cabbages and Condoms' to make a profit. That profit is given to the nonprofit foundation. That has to be the way of the future."

Recently I spoke to Mechai Viravaidya on the future of the PDA and the issues it addresses:

Q: What's the next natural step for the PDA?
A: From the 70s to the mid-80s, it was population and family planning. From the 80s to the 90s, mostly rural development and institutional development such as village banks and taking manufacturing out to villages. In the last three years it was youth government in villages and scholarships--over 1200. In 2000 we started anti-corruption studies for youth in secondary school--seminars for the kids to talk about corruption.

Q: Something like ethics?
A: Yes, but going beyond, because if you start off in kindergarten teaching honesty and good manners it grows from there. And this year, instead of having scholarships, we're planning to have our own school in the Northeast. It'll be open Saturdays and Sundays so that good teachers from all over including those in business can come and help us.
We want to teach not just the basics of primary and secondary school, but produce people with conscience. People who want to do public good. We want kids to analyze with a modern style of thinking rather than just sit down and become parrots.
So originally we tried to prevent people from being born because there were too many, then we tried to keep them fed, and now the third stage is on the "software side," the brain side, that's beyond feeding.

Q: There's been some slight increase in AIDS cases lately. Is the challenge of fighting AIDS in Thailand different these days?
A: Basically in the last nine years there has been a decline in new cases. We have just over one million that have been infected, so we must continue public education and that has weakened in the past couple of years. So when people don't hear about it on radio or television they think it's gone away like cholera.

Q: This weakness is the result of what?
A: Governmental commitment which has slackened, so that was a failure. I've spoke with the current Prime Minister [Thaksin Shinawatra] about what we have to do. We'll never have enough money for the treatment side, so right now the major concern, like in many countries, is prevention.

Q: Do you feel the present government is receptive to it?
A: Yes, they're committed to it and we just had a meeting last week that they're going to move on it.

Q: Do you have any opinion on the situation in Brazil where they are producing AIDS drugs without patents?
A: Oh yes, this will have to be the case. It's much, much cheaper. Brazil is producing the cheaper stuff, India's doing the same, we're beginning to do it already, and so is South Africa. So it seems that countries are fed up when the poor cannot afford to buy this drug when we know so well the production costs are so low.

Q: So that's what you would say to the big drug companies in the U.S. and elsewhere?
A: Oh yes. If it's luxury product, fine. If it's a Rolls Royce, or Mercedes Benz, fine. We can expect to pay a lot. But in this case it's just that the poor won't be able to touch it. It's just genuine survival.

Q: Nearby in Cambodia, they have a very high AIDS rate...
A: Yes, it's 4 percent of adults now. Again, the thing they can do best is awareness, public education, and make condoms available everywhere.

Q: So the same model that worked for Thailand would work for them?
A: Just tell them what it is, and again, some people, even if they know, they take risks, so have the condoms around everywhere. It's the only way you can really get hold of it.

Q: Perhaps no one can really answer this themselves, but what in your life or background has enabled you to be the person you are--to come up with ideas and innovate freely?
A: Well, this is just a stab in the dark, but it may be because I use both hands. I write right, I throw left, I play tennis right, and I play golf left. Maybe the fact that I use both sides of my brain may be responsible for having more ideas because the brain is more active. Just a guess!
In terms of conscience, a lot came from my parents. My mother in particular said you just shouldn't waste your education and you just shouldn't just want money because that is not the be-all and end-all. If you have the opportunity, try and pass on opportunity to someone else. The book probably explains more. My biography comes out in early May. ["From Condoms to Cabbages" by American doctor Tom D'Agnes, published by the Post Publishing Company]

Q: What's the most important thing to you in all the things you do?
A: Hard work, consistency, and I guess honesty. I started this off 26 years ago and had I been lining my pockets it would have certainly been different in terms of work and people's reactions. I think you have to be open and transparent and work hard at it and don't give up. Nothing's easy. Some people give up easily. I take quite a bit longer before I give up.

Q: Of all the programs you've been involved in, what are you proudest of?
A: Firstly, the word "proud"--I don't use it. It's not in my vocabulary. I thinks it's the Scottish side of me that says you don't praise yourself. So I'm glad things worked or they didn't fail. I may have come up with the idea, but to put it into action I need all sorts of people to help, so what I've done is more like teamwork.
What has satisfied me is a combination of things--to get the family planning program going from seven kids to under two now--that's one. And to get the anti-AIDS program going and the rural development going--they all sort of give me a level of satisfaction.
It is not a sense of "oh, I've sacrificed this," it's just that this is the field I've found most pleasant and satisfying to work in. Probably the most important thing that I feel is that I don't think I've wasted my life. I've tried to make a difference. I hope I've made a difference. History will judge. I see a lot of people have wasted their life even if they have lots of money. I feel like a marathon runner. I reach kilometer 1, then kilometer 2. I'm glad I reached it, I've done it, and I've participated.

Mechai links
Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant - a must-visit when in Bangkok
PDA - Population and Community Development Association
Mechai Viravaidya'sResume

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