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Privatising poverty reduction

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

It is clear Mechai Viravaidya still doesn’t expect much from Thailand’s politicians.

In the walkway up to his lush and cosy Birds & Bees resort in Pattaya are sound bites etched in wood that read like grafitti: ‘Don’t Steal, The Government Doesn’t like Competition’, ‘Forgive the Rabbits for Digging Hole, They Are Digging for Gold, Like Our Politicians’.

Meeting him not long ago at Birds & Bees, I had told Mechai if he thought Thai politicians were corrupt, he should check out Nepali netas. He had replied that the roots of bad governance and graft are the same everywhere. Lack of accountability stemmed from a flawed electoral system in which cheats usually win, and is followed by institutionalised impunity when they get to power.

Mechai’s distrust of politicians comes from his stint in government in 1992, when he had to battle the country’s image as a sex tourism destination. If it hadn’t been for his enormously successful family planning program in the 1980s and the spread of condom use, the AIDS epidemic in Thailand would have been much worse.

‘Mechai’ therefore became synonymous with ‘condom’ in Thailand, but today the economist-turned-social entrepreneur is better known for heading the country’s largest philanthropic organisation, the Population and Community Development Association (PDA). The non-profit now directly benefits 10 million Thais and received the 2007 Gates Award for Global Health for its AIDS work. PDA has almost completely weaned itself from foreign donors and generates its own revenue through partnerships with the private sector and autonomous businesses like the Birds & Bees resort and a restaurant chain called Cabbages & Condoms.

Khun Mechai

The money is ploughed into Mechai’s work with skills development, women’s employment schemes and health. Mechai calls it the “privatisation of poverty reduction”, and explains that the growing gap between rich and poor is the biggest threat to Thailand.

Another one of Mechai’s favourite signs at Birds & Bees is ‘Capitalism is the uneven distribution of wealth, communism is the even distribution of poverty’ and it stands just at the point where the path through the forest divides into one that says ‘Capitalism’ and another that says ‘Communism’.

Through another non-profit that he set up, the Thailand Business Initiative in Rural Development, Mechai has convinced 150 of Thailand’s biggest companies to help villages with managerial and marketing skills for their products. Dozens of villages, especially in northeastern Thailand, have completely come out of poverty.

“The only way out of poverty is through business and not through prayer or charity,” Mechai explains.

Through his decades in development, Mechai has come to the conclusion that the most effective way to redress the income gap is to provide the same opportunity for all Thais and this he says is only possible through free quality education for the poor.

Income from Birds & Bees, for example, all goes to Lampaimart Pattana School in Buri Ram Province, which Mechai is principal of, and gives children hands-on learning and has been graded one of the best schools in Thailand.

Condom decoration at the Birds & Bees Restaurant this week in Pattaya.

A recent evaluation showed Lampaimart Pattana is as good as the many international schools for expats in Thailand, but costs less than a government school. After starting out in family planning and launching a national condom campaign, then branching off into anti-AIDS work, Mechai’s mission is now poverty reduction through community empowerment through business and education.

I had once asked Mechai in Pattaya if he knew his surname in Sanskrit meant ‘Brave Doctor’, he’d said he knew it had something to do with medicine but that he was “neither brave nor a doctor”. In an interview during a visit to Nepal back in 2001 for an AIDS conference, Mechai had said about combating HIV: “You have to push, politicians will not do it naturally. And foreigners can’t do it, Nepalis will have to do it themselves.”

That advice seems more relevant than ever before, and not just for AIDS prevention.

See also:

Thailand’s Mr Condom comes to Kathmandu

The NGO business

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6 Responses to “Privatising poverty reduction”

  1. DanielGajaraj on Says:

    Mechai’ Viravaidya’s definition of Capitalism and Communism is very appropriate ;will another Vaidya, Mohan Vaidya agree to it?
    So the solution is to create wealth through Capitalism and make it Compassionate Capitalism ;through distribution as Narayan Murty has proposed.

  2. who cares on Says:

    great article/story,,, but he problem is, this should be distributed to all nepalese.

    and i like the definition of capitalism and communism,,,,,,,,,,,, one thing we should not forget is, capitalism, freedom will give you chance, hope even though it is a slim one.

    no hope means suicide.

  3. ananda on Says:

    “The only way out of poverty is through business and not through prayer or charity,” Mechai.

    to me this is the best quote. Donations, donor’s aid, foreign charity supported I/NGOs, or even government money can not reduce poverty. Only way out is business. Private business. Widely distributed & productive business is the solution. Thanks for sharing ideas of Mechai with readers.

  4. Tweets that mention East West | Travel Blog by Kunda Dixit | Nepali Times | » Blog Archive » Privatising poverty reduction -- on Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Becky Malby, Wolfi Viragh and ThaiCraft Fair Trade, Mechai Viravaidya. Mechai Viravaidya said: Article in Nepali Times on our approach to "social capitalism". […]

  5. DanielGajaraj on Says:

    Mechai’s Definition needs further elaboration:

    Capitalism is uneven distribution of wealth, communism is even distribution of poverty except for the party bosses, (and select card-holding members of the party.)

  6. Phurpa Tamang on Says:

    Mr. Kunda Dixit, Thank you so much for your article. You have given us to know about the poverty reduction steps taken by the Thai political supremo “Mechai”. It is a fantastic analysis that you have done. Why Nepal is not developing ? The reason is our politicians have no knowledge in making development plans. Incapable persons are holding the place of decision making. Technical persons are also not showing their innovative ideas in development. The NGO/INGOS are just spending time and money for programme in the name of development. An example, the poverty alleviation Fund is distributing money to buy goats and buffalo etc in the community level. After buying goats and buffalos, children face two choices: School going or going behind the goats or buffalos. What is better to give to the poor family ? Goat or buffalo ? or books, pencils, copies or better school for quality education? Mr. Kunda Dixit, you need to write about our country’s matter too. You just go out to Kathmandu valley or near by the valley. You will find how the government and NGO/INGOs are working. DEVELOPMENT is not to write in the white paper but to see a solid transformation in person life. That is we really want to see in our Nepal.
    Phurpa Tamang (Advocate)
    Thulobharkhu, Rasuwa, Nepal

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