Mechai Viravaidya - Thailand's Cheerful Revolutionary

10 February 2016

Mechai Viravaidya
Photo credit: Flickr/ Jim Fruchterman

Some years ago, I was speaking at an Asian Forum on CSR which was being held that year in Bangkok. I attended the speakers’ dinner the night before the conference kicked off, and remember exchanging a few pleasantries with one particular Thai gentleman there who I could see was one of the headline speakers. I didn’t think much about it. 

Then I saw his presentation and it blew me away. Not only was he a great speaker, but his story was just so completely inspiring. Later, I made a point at eating at a restaurant that was associated with him – a restaurant which, for reasons that will become obvious, was called ‘Cabbages and Condoms’. At the airport, I bought an authorised biography about him, and on the flight home my admiration for him grew.

Mechai Viravaidya has been, over his life, one of the most effective campaigners for social change I’ve ever heard about, let alone met.

In Thailand, Mechai Viravaidya became so associated with the condom, he became known as the condom king, and condoms themselves were referred to as ‘Mechais’. But really it all started from his background as a developmental economist. His early focus on promoting family planning came from the realization that – at that time – Thailand’s population was growing too fast.

Mechai Viravaidya is one of the most effective campaigners for social change bar none

Families had an average of seven children. It was growing unsustainably fast in relation to the resources there were available, and it was fuelling problems of poverty. But although his choice of issue was guided by sober, academic analysis of the problems facing the country, his approach to dealing with them was anything but.

The challenge was how to popularise messages to encourage family planning. Thai culture was such that frank talk about such matters was generally unheard of and, to be effective, the message had to reach out across the country into all the rural areas, not just the cities.

Mechai Viravaidya promoting family planning
Mechai Viravaidya promoting family planning

Starting in Thailand’s family planning association, and then eventually moving from this stifling environment to found his own organisation, the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), he developed a humorous, energetic and even outrageous campaign to get the message into all the villages. The promotion of condoms was everywhere. There were family planning supermarkets, vasectomy tour buses, condom key-chains. Taxi drivers were recruited to distribute condoms. Buddhist monks blessed them with holy water. Women in villages across the country became the distribution points.

Mechai’s approach was designed to change cultural attitudes so these things could be made safe to talk about in Thai culture, and it worked. Birth-rates dropped. The message got through.

Some years later, HIV/AIDS arrived in Thailand, and a new campaign was needed. Whilst the government was still in denial about the presence of the disease, Mechai relaunched the campaign and once again was successful in bringing HIV/AIDS infection rates down.

Having addressed population growth, he focused on other areas to do with poverty alleviation. He got large corporations to agree to use village enterprises as suppliers, and to sponsor food banks where the rural poor would be involved in growing food for themselves and to sell. He said poor people were entrepreneurs who just didn’t have access to credit and business skills, and went about creating schemes to provide both.

From Condoms to Cabbages - biography of Mechai Viravaidya
The biography I read on my way back from Bangkok

And, of course, some of the food produced through these schemes was sold to the restaurant he set up in Bangkok, Cabbages and Condoms, which would provide exquisitely cooked Thai food and, at the end of the meal – of course – instead of the traditional after-dinner mint, you would be given a condom.

The development work of PDA has continued unabated ever since, and in 2007 it was awarded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Award in recognition of its longstanding pioneering work.

Mechai Viravaidya is an utterly inspiring figure because he saw through analysis what had to be done, and he simply recruited allies, scandalised bureaucrats and moved whatever mountains were in his way to change an entire national culture. Energy, creativity, humility, and a drive to make things better from the basis of a real connection to the people with the most at stake – the rural poor of Thailand.

Mechai Viravaidya spoke to a TEDx event, the video for which you can see here.