It was well over 100 degrees in the shade and the sun was brutally beating up my white skin. But Mechai Viravaidya looked as cool as if he had just walked out of air-conditioning. The trim, pressed, 67 year old man with a thinning head of hair greeted the children of the Lamplaimat Pattana School with a grin and a twinkle in his eye that he had reserved only for them.
The evening before he was not interested in carrying on a conversation with me or anyone on his team for that matter. He did not smile and he was consumed by secret thoughts. He did not even engage in polite small talk. At a certain point I wondered if he was mildly deaf as he had that look on his face that people sometimes get in large groups when they are hard of hearing.
But this morning he was another man. After thirty years devoted to eradicating poverty in Thailand Mechai Viravaidya was launching his most ambitious project yet. He was going to make sure that what he had started so long ago would be sustained for generations to come.
Mechai was born in Bangkok to a Thai father and a Scottish mother. He had always been regarded by some in traditional circles as an odd character, a bit of an outsider. Even his Thai half was infused with Chinese ancestry. So as someone who did not quite fit the idea of Thai society, it should have been no surprise that for most of his life Mechai pursued solutions to problems which were unconventional and often even scandalous among Thailand’s prudish elite. His parents had both been doctors and his mother, with whom he had been extremely close, had infused him with her belief that those who were fortunate enough to have more had an obligation to help those with less. Mechai had taken these lessons to heart.
Today he is known throughout the world for curbing the population explosion in Thailand which in the 1970’s was one of the greatest obstacles to successful economic development. As a young employee of the National Economic Development Board, Mechai began introducing the birth control pill into villages and rural communities. For practical purposes, he renamed it the family welfare vitamin as it sounded much less onerous and it also disassociated it with intimate physical matters. Against great objection he managed to have the pills distributed at the community level instead of through the traditional bottlenecks of doctors and clinics. This enabled more people to access birth control and it reached into the far corners of rural Thailand. Within a few decades the population growth in Thailand had dropped from 3.3% to 0.5% (the average family went from 7 children to 1.5 children).
Mechai has always rooted his work in his life’s mission of eradicating poverty. Once HIV/AIDS was under control he set about building micro financing programs to encourage the development of small enterprises in Thailand’s rural regions. In the neighboring villages around the Lamplaimat Pattana School owners of small silk weaving, dried fruit, organic fertilizer and animal feed enterprises now could afford to educate their children where before they had had no hope of doing so.
Mechai believed that education was the antibiotic for poverty. He also knew that the first thing a villager did when he had enough money to spend beyond subsistence level, was to send his child to school. On paper, the Thai government was supposed to provide education to all children, but in reality this was not the case.
With money he made from selling the family property which had been left to him by his parents, Mechai invested in the building of a new school in one of the remotest, most desperate provinces in northeast Thailand. It would be a test case for a new education model for Thailand’s poorest. Mechai provided the capital investment, but the school sustained itself annually through small businesses that it had started and were run by teachers and students.
In the hallway outside the classroom, Mechai wanted to show me the work that was being done on computers. There were no text books in this school. Text books were expensive and only taught subjects in one way. But more importantly, textbooks did not allow for self directed learning. Mechai wanted the students at this school used the internet to learn in a more opportunistic and engaging way than a book could ever offer. Through the internet they would also learn from the rest of the world and since most of them were now learning English, even more of the world was open to them.
When I later asked a couple of parents what their hope was for their child who was attending the school. They said to me that it was their wish that they would grow up to be good people, who helped their communities and families. It was strange that none of them said they wanted to their children to be rich and successful. I wondered if secretly they did and were not telling me.
But then again, Mechai’s intent with this school was not to teach individual achievement at the expense of all else. He was trying to cultivate a new morality, one based on economic independence, but also social co-dependence.
In appreciation for all that was being given to them, the students of Lamplaimat Pattana School devoted hours of their days to serving the elderly in their community, helping them with chores, cooking for them, fetching necessities. They would be dispatched to work on community projects and perform community services in their villages and others. They would also devote time to caring for orphans, those children who were even less fortunate than they were because they had been left without families. They understood that others had given so that they may have this opportunity and that as part of a greater society, they were in turn were to give to others.
Mechai saw the future of philanthropy being reformed first through children, through teaching at a very young age the importance of human interdependence for survival and for elevating each other out of poverty and destitution. In a sense it was a school where the concept of paying forward was at the very essence of its purpose. Over time as children grew up and then re-enforced this with their children, a new approach to serving humanity would emerge. This was Mechai’s dream. He did not believe that writing a check to a charity was good enough; it perpetuated the dehumanization of poverty and suffering. It created a distance between people; it abdicated responsibility for altruism to someone else. Of course, for those who had never written a check before or made any kind of donation, he said this could be a first step. But eventually he wanted to see more and more people reach out a hand and give of themselves not just of their possessions.
As I sat for a minute’s rest, the sweat pouring down my back in rivulets, I watched Mechai rush off to meet the builders who were responsible for completing a new recreation center for the school. They already were behind schedule. Mechai made his way deliberately, but also pausing gently to greet the many children, parents and teachers who were wandering from building to building at the Lamplaimat Pattana School. They were all admiring the new structures that had just been completed.
Today Mechai was celebrating. It was the opening day of the new middle school and 30 children who had completed six years in the primarly school were about to begin a new school year in 7th grade. We were there to send the students off with our good wishes. We were also there to celebrate Mechai’s dream of sustainability. Only now it was no longer just his dream. Today he had entrusted it to the next generation.