Thailand’s Condom King comes to Seattle

Mechai Viravaidya is known around the world as “Mr. Condom” or the “Condom King” for his activism promoting safe sex in Thailand when the AIDS epidemic first emerged. Many say Thailand’s aggressive condom promotion within the sex industry did a lot to lessen the impact of the pandemic there.

On Thursday evening, after stopping by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation earlier in the week to speak at their annual meeting, Mechai gave a talk at Seattle Town Hall. The event was sponsored by the World Affairs Council.

The economist and former legislator-movie star is very entertaining, even though he tends to use the same jokes. (I met Mechai almost 10 years ago in Bangkok at one of his famous Cabbages & Condoms restaurants … and heard some of the same jokes then. They’re still funny, though)

Mechai didn’t talk about condoms much this time. He talked about a much grander project he’s been working on for more than 30 years, and which led to his condom activism.

It’s called the Population and Community Development Association, an organization Mechai and others started in 1974 aimed initially at promoting family planning in poor communities. That’s how he first got into condoms and later into AIDS activism.

What he’s into now is a much broader-based kind of anti-poverty project he calls the “Village Development Partnership,” for which he won the 2007 Gates Global Health Award and later the 2008 Skoll Foundation Award for Social Entrepreneurship.

It’s difficult to summarize what makes his approach so successful. Just as he was credited for doing a lot to reduce the threat of AIDS in Thailand, Mechai’s work in family planning has drastically reduced the birth rate in rural communities. But none of these single-purpose measures really describes what he does.

At Town Hall, Mechai described how his organization (now the largest non-governmental organization in Thailand) is now working to improve education in poor communities, teach financial management and entrepreneurial skills and generally empower communities to help themselves.

He frequently expresses little faith in government, multilateral outside organizations like the UN or almost anyone other than the ability of people to help themselves.”The road out of poverty is through business enterprise.”

You can read more about his organization’s approach here.

I talked to Mechai before he spoke to ask what he told the Gates Foundation.

“I told them they’re getting dull, that they need to start thinking outside the box,” he said. Mechai said he spoke personally with Bill Gates Sr. to challenge one of the philanthropy’s working assumptions — that reducing child mortality will work to reduce birth rates.

“Some child mortality guru told them this and it’s not true,” Mechai contended.

Both Thailand and the Philippines have significantly reduced child mortality rates, he said, but Thailand’s birth rate has declined while the Philippines continue to have a high birth rate. He also said at the event that Bill Gates Sr. gave him some shoes to use as an entertaining plant container in a children’s garden at one of the village projects. “Bill Gates Sr. has very big feet.”

Mechai Viravaidya at Seattle Town Hall, talking about his "Barefoot MBA" program supported by the Gates Fdn

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.