I had the privilege of meeting an exceptional person last week in the form of Mechai Viraidya. We use the word “exceptional” very loosely these days but I can say with confidence that I’ve rarely met anyone like Mechai.
Mechai is a social entrepreneur of a different order. As a young economist working for the government in Thailand, Mechai saw a link between rapid population growth and poverty. He launched the Population and Community Development Association (PDA) in 1974 to distribute contraceptives and introduce sex education in rural communities and schools. The population growth rate dropped from 3.2 percent in 1974 to 0.5 percent in 2005. In the early 1990s, when HIV/AIDS hit Thailand, Mechai harnessed the PDA network and media and launched an aggressive public education campaign. Within 10 years Thailand was able to reduce HIV infections by 90 percent – equivalent to 7.7 million lives saved. The organization has enlisted private partners in over 450 Village Development Partnership programs that enable the poor to generate income without having to migrate to cities. By 2011, PDA plans to expand the Partnership program to at least 100 more villages.
PDA’s mission statement is: “Empowering Thailand’s Rural Communities to Eradicate Poverty”.
Mechai accepted the $1 million Gates Award for Global Health in 2007 and has also been recognised by Time Magazine as one of sixty Asian heroes. In 1997 he won United Nations Population Award (UNPA) in recognition of his most outstanding contribution to the awareness of population questions and to their solutions. Here’s Mechai being interviewed in connection with this award
Most recently PDA won the Skoll Foundation Award 2008 in recognition of their creative, innovative models of sustainable change.
If that wasn’t enough Mechai is now engaged in creating an empowering model of education in Thailand. Lamplaimat Pattana School (LPMP)
In my next post I’ll reflect on how we have so much to learn from Lamplaimat but in the meantime I have to admit to being jolted out of my own comfort zone by meeting Mechai. Here was a person who saw a problem and did something about it. He didn’t make excuses that he couldn’t influence or change a system. His commitment to action and lack of any fear of failure was inspirational. I think I too often sit on the fence when I see something that’s fundamentally wrong believing that it can’t be changed. If Mechai Viraidya had been incapacitated by such a fear then millions of his country’s population would no longer be alive. Now that is truly an example to others!
Fascinated by this posting because this summer will be my 3rd summer in Thailand. My visits, however, are to the most marginalised of people living in Thailand, the Burmese migrant and refugee community that Thais generally despise. I was heartened to hear in Mechai’s interview, however, that he is including migrants in his plans for spending the money he has won.
Burmese migrants are effectively excluded from the Thai education system and have to scrabble around for NGO funding to create their own schools. It’s very bleak being Burmese in Thailand. Yet there are many Burmese educational adventurers finding very creative ways to create new and relevant learning initiatives for their people.
We have a partnership with the Teacher Training Centre for Burmese Teachers (www.educationburma.net) which has created a new pedagogy called Reading and Writing for Critical Thinking, to prepare the Burmese people to become active thinkers and citizens, ready to participate in the democracy they are crying out for in their own country.
During his visit with us during March 09, TTBT’s Dr Thein Lwin gave a presentation at Edinburgh University’s Faculty of Education on his pedagogy, which has been developed with the University of Newcastle.
I look forward to hearing what Mechai has to say about education in Thailand’s poorest communities.