How an activist used humor (and condoms) to save over 7 million lives

Mechai Viravaidya was born in 1941. Both of his parents were medical doctors — his father from Thailand and his mother from Scotland.

After studying economics in college, he joined the Thai government to alleviate poverty. He became the Minister of Industry, but no matter how hard he worked his home remained poor.

Why? The average family had seven children. Access to contraception would be the easiest way to improve living conditions — especially in a country famous for sex tourism — but the government wouldn’t promote family planning. Frustrated, he founded an NGO in 1974 — The Population and Community Development Association (PDA).

First his team confronted a taboo head on — they made sex education funny. They staged stunts, like free vasectomies (and hot dogs) for all men. They dressed a man up as a superhero — “Captain Condom with a Harvard MBA” — and had him go to schools and night spots. “They loved him. In every program you need a symbol. And this is probably the best thing he’s ever done with his MBA.”

Then they made sure Thai people could get condoms everywhere, including in taxies and in over five million hotel mini-bars.

And finally they involved everyone. 250,000 teachers learned family planning using a board game. A Buddhist monk sprinkling holy water on contraceptives, “for the sanctity of the family.” Police even gave away condoms (as part of the “Cops and Rubbers” program). “It’s everybody’s job who can change attitude and behavior… Don’t leave it to the specialists, doctors, government. We all need to help.”

To ensure sustainability, Mechai set up over twenty for-profit companies that donate to PDA. There’s a chain of restaurants. The Birds & Bees resort. Real estate. Manufacturing. And more.

His impact? 3,000 people employed. The average family now has 1.5 children. Thai people call condoms “mechais.” Most impressively, the UN said his work lowered HIV infection by 90%. And the World Bank said this saved $18 billion in treatment costs and 7.7 million lives.

Why does he do it? “Those who have a surplus of time and money should be those who can help the poor. Otherwise it would be a waste of an existence. [It’s also] great fun [to see people] becoming self reliant…”

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