Successfully Yours: Mechai Viravaidya

by Dr. Iain Corness

The chairman of the Population and Community Development Association (PDA) is an energetic and enthusiastic Thai senator, Mechai Viravaidya. I ran the senator down to earth when he was attempting to relax at his Cabbages and Condoms Resort after celebrating his 62nd birthday the night before. I apologized, but still seized the advantage of actually sitting down with a man who is busier than the proverbial one-armed paperhanger.

As chairman of the PDA he is at the forefront of bringing assistance to the rural poor. One often finds that the charitable persons who will do this have come from a poor background themselves, but having struggled to succeed, then help their needy fellow man and woman. This is not the case with K. Mechai. He was born, not with a silver spoon in his mouth, but rather a gold one.

His parents were both doctors of medicine, his father Dr. Samak Viravaidya, a Thai who had studied in Scotland, and his mother, Dr. Ella Mackinnon Robertson, a strong and independent Scottish woman. There is no doubt in my mind that the similar qualities in her elder son Mechai were partly as a result of her influences.

His background was then one of money, good schools and easy entr้e into the upper levels of Thai society. This was the man who was chosen many years ago to be the escort for Miss Universe and had then become a household name. I asked directly just why, from that lofty level, he should become so intimately involved with the poorest of the poor in rural Thailand, when if conscience salving were the aim, then some donations here and there would have sufficed. He replied just as directly. “Those who have a surplus of time and money should be those who can help the poor. Otherwise it would be a waste of an existence. It is great fun in seeing the individual pictures of peoples becoming self reliant.” He finished with the simple statement, “The poor are the nicest people anyway.”

At that stage we were sitting in the grounds of the Cabbages and Condoms Resort close to one of his project “mini” farms, and I was taken to inspect it. By now, K. Mechai was in full swing, enthusiastically explaining just what was needed to alleviate the rural poverty. It was also at this stage that I decided the standard “time-line” approach to the life of this man was not going to work, and I could better serve the readers by also becoming involved in the answers for the rural poor, as seen by this man.

His simple concept is that to alleviate poverty, you have to promulgate a system whereby the poor can generate income. It makes no difference what you do or produce. He sees every individual as a manager of a small “business” even if it is just collecting rubbish, which in turn is on-sold to provide income. From K. Mechai’s point of view, the reason why they are “poor” is because they are bad at their business. With that as the premise, you can see why he says that government officials and welfare workers cannot eradicate the problem. What is needed, he says, is, “Privatisation of Poverty Reduction. We should provide financial opportunities and we should provide business skills.”

One way that this is done is by “fostering” a village. Despite the national government’s push to increase the availability of education, improve roads and extend the electricity grid, many villages remain tied to the shrinking agri-economy. And their income shrinks with it. This is where the PDA can sit down with the villagers and analyse their problems and see which of them can be helped by better business skills. This is where the fostering company comes in, sending two or three staff members to look at the problems, write the business plan and get the bank finance for the villagers. This part is only underwritten by the company as guarantor, the company does not finance the business plan. If repayment is taken as a monitor of the effectiveness, then the 100% repaid loans shows that K. Mechai’s concept must be close to the mark. So close in fact, that he has been asked to provide a similar model for other poor countries.

Of course, this K. Mechai is the same K. Mechai who 30 odd years ago brought family planning to the rural masses and reduced birth rates dramatically in rural Thailand. He is also the same K. Mechai who has been involved in AIDS education and welfare. The same man who has built up a chain of Cabbages and Condoms restaurants whose profits are ploughed back into the PDA, and now is looking to expand overseas. A man who is at the helm of 16 companies which make their profits available for his social programmes, called Vistas for Social Progress. A man who has used his natural abilities and social position to help those in different circumstances.

No matter how you define the concept of “success”, K. Mechai is a successful man. That he uses his success to benefit others makes him a true philanthropist in my book. K. Mechai’s surname starts with the letter “V” and so also does the word “visionary”. There is no doubt about the fact that he is a visionary, and that he continues to have such enthusiasm for his varied projects, is also not in doubt. When someone comes up with the final model for eradication of poverty in the world, do not be astonished if that someone is Mechai Viravaidya. I certainly will not be surprised. It was an honour to take 60 minutes of his time.

Post Script. If you would like to know more about K. Mechai Viravaidya, I suggest you pick up a copy of the book From Condoms to Cabbages, an authorized biography, written by Thomas D’Agnes, a man who worked with K. Mechai for six years. It is illuminating reading.