Recently Scott Murray interviewed Mechai Viravaidya the founder and Chairman of the Board of Population and Development Association (PDA).
"Asiaweek" magazine once listed Khun Mechai as being one of the twenty most influential people in Asia, and the distinction is well-deserved. He is currently a senator, and Chairman of the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA). His many honors include being awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award (Asia's Nobel Peace Prize) for Public Service in 1994 in recognition of his mounting creative public campaigns promoting family planning, rural development, and AIDS prevention.
What sparked your social consciousness?
When I was young my mother spent a lot of time telling me that some people are lucky, and some are not, and that those who are lucky should help those less fortunate than themselves. My parents were doctors and they often did that with the poor. People would come to see them even though they didn't have money, but my parents would treat them just the same.
How did the idea for the Population and Community Development Program (PDA) come about?
We started the PDA at a time when the population growth rate was very high, and we needed to slow it down. The Ministry of Health had a program but it reached only about 20% of the people.
We wanted to give people a better quality of life so we had to reduce the population growth. It was essential to raise the opportunity levels (education, employment) and this is easier to do if you do not have a forever expanding population.
Why do you think people do not do more to help those less fortunate than themselves?
The current education system in Thailand teaches people to remember - not to inquire. But the emphasis should be placed on the "inquiring mind," and then there would be more people doing what I do. We need to get kids to ask questions. I have a program where the kids must ask a question a day. Their new knowledge then comes from their own questions about their society and the world around them.
Everything is very materialistic these days. Everything in the media urges people to be more materialistic. We are told to get jobs that pay well so that we can buy all the things we want. There isn't much to remind us of the conditions of the people who live in what I call "Thailand II." Thailand 2 is rural, poor, and underdeveloped. We live in Thailand 1, which is the generally wealthy, urbanized developed society that the country is famous for. As a result people tend only to think of themselves.
How did the idea for using humor to disseminate information about birth control come about?
As a student I was more interested in teaching methods that were fun not dull, and I assumed that most people would prefer it that way. Humor has kept the issue alive, and in areas where there is possible embarrassment it has helped tremendously.
How has the focus of the PDA changed?
Only ten percent of our programs now revolve around family planning but family planning gave us the start. It was a human thing to do. If you can get close to people on matters that are highly personal and they trust you, then will trust you with their pigs, chickens, livelihood and other things more easily. We got right into the bedroom early on and that helped us. Since then people have trusted us. But now you don't have to remind Thais these days about having small families. The population growth is now about 1.1% whereas it was 3.3% when we started. Most families now have two children as against seven two decades ago. Thai people are making clear decisions. They want a better life for themselves and their children and it is much harder to do that with a large family.
Our main concerns with the PDA now are development, income generation, institution building at the village level, stopping migration, improving education, implementing industry, and stopping prostitution.
How have you tried to discourage women from entering into prostitution?
The procurers have a very good marketing strategy. They tell the women they will earn money, and be good loyal children and that they will be able to buy land, and housing for their families. The women are also led to believe that they will earn enough money to send their siblings to university. But those that don't succeed are not going to admit it. For every success there are nine failures. Those nine failures aren't articulated however. And the result of prostitution nowadays is death not just getting a disease every once in a while.
We did a lot of surveys with young women and teenagers to see if they would like to stay in their village, and if they yes how much money they would need to remain. We found that they only wanted a moderate income, and so we have tried to provide them with these opportunities. We have income generating programs for families who have difficulty affording to keep their daughters in school. The money from these programs helps buy the girls lunch, uniforms, books and bus fare. We also train girls who are out of school to learn a skill and this is sponsored by companies who provide a revolving loan fund for the village. By keeping girls in secondary school we have found that they have over a 90% chance of staying out of the commercial sex industry.
We introduced ex-prostitutes to these women, and we showed slides and newspaper clippings detailing the downside of prostitution. The girls said "My God we didn't know that."
In a program sponsored by the Thai Farmers Bank we took five villages which had sent about 30 girls each into prostitution. We gave them skill-training and helped them and a year-and-a-half later, only one new girl went into the business. The reasons were that they now had income opportunities and they had never been told of the negative side of prostitution before. We also warned the girls that prostitution will take them to the earliest death possible, from AIDS, faster than going to war.
We must show them what prostitution really is, and provide the girls with alternatives. The downside of this is that while fewer Thai women are entering into prostitution they are being replaced by Burmese women, and that is a major problem?
What about educating young men?
Part of our rural AIDS education asks boys in grades five or six to promise that they will never visit a brothel when they grow up. This is the first time they have ever heard that visiting a brothel is wrong. We also tell the young girls to remind them, because prostitution is demeaning to women. We also ask the boys if they would want their sisters to become prostitutes? Of course, they say no, so we tell them these girls are somebody's sisters. Remember, when you learn when you are young it leaves a lasting impression in your mind.
What about Thai women being shipped to Japan as sex workers?
Here again the numbers are going down, but the procurers can beat me at the game by saying that AIDS doesn't exist in Japan, so the women will be safe there. Many women go to Japan naively believing things will work out for them, and that they will make lots of money. They decide to believe what they want to believe despite evidence to the contrary.
What about the allegations that some of the police work hand-in-hand with the procurers?
Some police are definitely in cahoots with the sex trade operators so I think prostitution should be decriminalized then the women couldn't be arrested and they wouldn't be put into jail. Then the corrupt police couldn't touch them, and they wouldn't be abused.
What is the main task of the PDA right now?
Our main task is getting the privileged or successful people to help those who are still awaiting opportunity. We are trying to do this through our program called the TBIRD (Thailand Business Initiative in Rural Development).
We now have about one hundred companies fostering activities or programs in villages. We are also shifting from foreign to domestic assistance, and taking jobs out to the people instead of bringing people to jobs via migration.
The industrial boon has brought people from rural settings to urban ones. They are forced to leave their children behind, which breaks down family structures. So this rapid economic development has come at a tremendous social cost to the village and people don't see that. The village culture is breaking down and the social fabric of the village is also being destroyed. We must stop the flow of migration by taking opportunities out to the villages.
About four million pairs of shoes are now being made in Northeastern villages. Villagers also have a financial stake in these industries. Nike, Dr Scholl and other brands are now being made out in rural settings, and people are returning to their villages. So not only have we stopped migration but reverse migration has occurred, and this is very good.
In this country the top 20 percent of income earners take home 66 percent of the income. The bottom 20 percent take home only 3 percent. This is a huge disparity that needs to be corrected. There are about 100,000 homes in Bangkok where the dogs eat better than people in 100,000 homes in Issan (Northeastern Thailand). Same nation, same flag, same king but what a sad disparity. We must do more. And that's why I am asking the privileged to help those less privileged.
Would you please elaborate on the TBIRD program?
The TBIRD program is designed to:
Some companies sponsor TBIRD projects by contributing 5 percent of their director's fees, and 5 percent of the director's bonus to a fund for rural development. If more and more companies do this the poor will have a chance. We also need them to help train the NGOs. I am also trying to propose that companies give paid leave (7-10 days a year) to their employees to go and help needy causes.
We must transfer skills from the business sector to villages in rural Thailand so that the country can operate more efficiently as a whole. Businesses must help society. They can't just make a profit and pay taxes. It is incumbent on them to pass on some of their profits from society in a way that is productive.
One-third of the people in the Northeast live on less than Bt4,200 a year. That is pretty low. When businesses learn of this lack of opportunity they are interested in helping out. The government can only help with infrastructure, but it has done pretty well in that area. Eighty percent of all the villages now have good access roads, 95 percent have electricity, 97 percent of the people are literate, and 100 percent of the tambons have health centers.
What we have found in our 22 years of work is that despite sharing the same level of infrastructure many villages don't succeed, usually because they lack four basic skills: one, how to organize; two, how to produce; three, how to finance; four, how to market. These skills belong to the business sector, not the government sector. That is why I have appealed to companies, not just because they have money. TBIRD draws on companies brain power plus some of their money and their contributions are tax deductible.
Which companies are involved in the TBIRD program?
One of the most outstanding companies so far is Eastwater. It gives 5 percent of its profit, 5 percent of the director's fee, 5 percent of the director's bonus, and between 1-5 percent of staff bonuses (voluntarily) towards improving the environment and the quality of life. It is also their mandate to provide training in corporate planning for the NGOs.
Other companies include PTT-EP (Exploration and Production) and PTT proper, Capital Nomura Securities, Nakornthorn Bank, Design 103, and Mobil Oil. Bata has been outstanding as it has moved almost half of its production of school shoes out to the villages. Lamsoon which makes cooking oil have been doing good things as well.
What other projects are you working on?
Soon we will be starting the SEED (Student Environmental Education and Demonstration) project which is a mobile van which visits different schools for a day at a time. Three elephants will go with one van. The elephant is the greatest tree planter of all; it doesn't digest everything it eats, so the plants grow again. The elephant was a symbol of Thailand (it used to be on the national flag until 1918), and is a victim of environmental destruction. In some places they don't have enough to eat because the forest area has been cut down. Elephants can't eat the eucalyptus which has been planted in many areas. We are turning the elephants you find begging in the streets of Bangkok into teachers.
To mark the King's Jubilee the PTT wants to plant a million rai of trees at the cost of Bt3 billion (US$120 million). They have asked us to take care of the thirty-six villages around the area, and they have given us money to implement programs to help raise the standard in the villages to enable the villagers to take better care of the forest.
Any regrets or disappointments?
Not really but I did want a helicopter at one time. It would have helped us in our work and allowed us to access remote areas. It would have been too costly to maintain though.
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