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World Perspective | PHILANTHROPY

Humor, Education Help Boost Thai's Birth Control Campaign

March 18, 2000|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BANGKOK, Thailand — There's good news for Thailand on two fronts: Emergency aid from the International Monetary Fund will end on schedule in June, confirming that economic recovery is truly underway. And the nation's population growth has dipped below 1% a year.

The linkage between the unrelated news items is more than casual. For a generation, Thai governments have believed that economic well-being is impossible without restrained population growth. Their policies have greatly reduced one of the world's highest birthrates and transformed Thailand into a model of family planning for Asia.

Ask anyone how Thailand managed to reduce the number of children in an average family from seven to two, and its annual population growth from 3.3% to 0.9% in 25 years, and the answer is almost always Mechai Viravaidya. Thailand's leading philanthropist is so closely associated with birth control that Thais refer to him as "Mr. Condom" and often call condoms "mechais."

Mechai, 58, the Australian-educated son of a Scottish mother and a Thai father, decided after touring rural Thailand often in the early 1970s that the best way to reduce poverty and the size of families was to take the condom out of the closet. The contraceptive, he reasoned, should be as common and noncontroversial a household item as cabbage.

But how to overcome the Thais' shyness about even mentioning condoms, which then were tucked away in the back of shop shelves? Be outrageous and humorous, he reasoned.

"I wanted to desensitize the condom, make it a friendly product rather than something embarrassing," he recalled recently. "Why be embarrassed by it? Our kitchens are full of knives, and we're not all murderers. Why? Because of our upbringing. If your mind is clean, the condom is not a dirty product."

Under the patronage of a nonprofit organization he founded in 1974, the Population and Community Development Assn., he passed out condoms to a somber and perplexed Vietnamese delegation in 1975 and startled bankers and finance ministers when he appeared at a World Bank meeting here in 1991 with fistfuls of the contraceptives. He also opened what would become a popular Bangkok restaurant, Cabbages and Condoms.

Nowadays, any male dining at C&C can get a free vasectomy at the association clinic next door. One menu specialty is spicy condom salad (Shanghai noodles with chili sauce and herbs). In lieu of after-dinner mints, patrons receive condoms.

C&C grosses $60,000 a month, with all profits going to the association, which has become Thailand's largest private nonprofit agency. Its focus has broadened to include rural development, environmental conservation and AIDS awareness.

Mechai's organization has won international praise for innovative programs among the poor. He has held four Cabinet positions; he has been awarded eight honorary degrees by Thai and Australian universities; he received the 1994 Ramon Magsaysay Award for public service, the equivalent of an Asian Nobel Prize; and he was included in Asiaweek magazine's 1995 list of 20 great Asians.

Mechai's parents were dedicated physicians who, he recalled, did very well "treating the poor for free and charging the rich." Asked why a social conscience had become the pillar of his life, he brought up something his mother told him in 1964, when he returned to Thailand with an economics degree from Melbourne University.

She said: "You got an education not because you are bright, but because we had the money. If people like you work for profit, who is going to work for the poor?"

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