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"The Business Sector is Out There to Be Used!"

Interview with Mechai Viravaidya



A well-known activist and opinion-leader in Thailand, Mr. Mechai Viravaidya has held many positions in his lifetime: government planner, minister, senator, scholar, businessman and NGO leader. He is the founder and Chairman of the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), a Thai NGO which has been recognized for its successful work in family planning in Thailand since the 1980s.

PDA has been involved in enlisting Thailand's private sector in transferring their business skills to poor villagers. Known as the Thai Business Initiative for Rural Development (TBIRD), this scheme has gained much attention as an innovative HRD approach to rural poverty alleviation. We spoke to Mr. Mechai on the occasion of the release of an ESCAP publication on TBIRD.

As one of Thailand's foremost social activists, and having also served as a government planner and a minister during the span of your career, in which role do you feel you have made the most significant contribution?

Definitely as an NGO leader. But working in other sectors has helped to give me a better perspective. The sequence has also been important. I started off in the government first. When you work in an NGO, you see that the government makes many mistakes. But when you have worked with the government, you understand the realities and the constraints that these officials face. You also learn how to approach them. It's like learning good manners.

Do you think that your experience as a businessman has helped?

I am on the board of directors of eight or nine companies. In these companies, I try to introduce the concept of being socially responsible. Some of them have agreed to allocate five percent of their profits, and the director's fees and bonuses, into a fund for "improving the quality of life and the environment". If we can get all of the companies listed on the Thai stock exchange to do that, it will be more than what the United Nations has put into Thailand in the last several years. Thailand is now rich enough to help its own poor. But we need some kind of pipeline to the poor. Perhaps we have overlooked the need to have some established system which will enable needy groups to get the resources, which were previously provided by foreign assistance.

That redistribution of income could also happen through a progressive tax system.

Well, it doesn't really happen that way in Thailand. The Government spends much of its money basically on infrastructure. The Government has never redistributed income, it has only redistributed opportunities. A good road and electricity for a villager do not guarantee him an increased income, because he needs the skills to make use of the infrastructure. In fact, in Thailand, the infrastructure has increased villager's indebtedness, because they can now buy all kinds of consumer products. Despite the excellent infrastructure that exists, villagers need to have the knowledge of how to organize, how to produce, how to finance, and how to market. These skills belong to the business sector. What TBIRD does is bring business people out to the rural areas to show villagers what they know best: how to make money.

A road and electricity do not guarantee an increased income for a villager. He needs the skills to make use of it

How did TBIRD come about?

When I was the Deputy Minister of Industry in 1985-86, I felt that the business sector could help development by taking machinery to people, rather than bringing people to machinery. There was very heavy migration to Bangkok then. In 41 percent of the villages, about half the people had migrated. Today, in some villages only 30 percent of the people are still there, and they are elderly people and school-age children. The rest have all gone. Families have split up. This type of development is destroying the social and cultural fabric of the village. We might have had eight years of the world's fastest continuous growth, but what we also had was eight years of destructive social encroachment on the village community. In TBIRD, we want to reverse the destruction of the village. We should and can take the people back to the village. And if they work again in their village, they can reunite with their families.

How do villagers react when they see company executives come to their village?

Before company staff visit the village, we will have done a lot of social preparation. We have worked with many of these villagers for over 20 years in family planning, so they know us. We explain to them what we are trying to do, and we take them to some place to look at what can be done, and to have them talk about it amongst themselves. Only then do we bring in the company to talk with the villagers before starting the project.

Sometimes we in TBIRD take equity in the factory together with the sponsoring company. So we take the burden of risk first, but we agree that we will sell off 30 percent of the factory to the workers or the cooperative in the area. Then we provide the training. Some of the factories are now wholly owned by the people through their cooperatives. This is what I call "social capitalism": you set a proportion of the ownership to the villagers; you don't just use their labour. We had to refuse some companies who joined only to exploit cheap labour. Together with some companies, we have helped villagers set up their own vegetable farms, and to help in marketing. The only other thing they need apart from skills is water. Elderly people can make a living from this vegetable project. Just 800 square meters of a vegetable garden is enough to live on and keep a child in secondary school.

We might have had the world's fastest growth in Thailand, but we have also had destructive encroachment of the village community

Do you think the TBIRD approach can work in other countries?

Yes, certainly. The financial power and resources of the business sector will continue to grow everywhere in Asia. Go-vernments have few resources. Why ask a skinny persosn to help you, when you can go to a strong person instead? Secondly, one should educate the business sector itself, and as a member of the business community I am involved in that. Businesses must share their skills with the community, in addition to giving money. For example, one company I work with is very good at corporate planning, and they will be doing training for NGOs. Another example is to allow companies to give a week off to their staff, so that they may work in certain areas of need.

What do you say to the comment that companies should be left to do what they can do best, namely to make money, and let development be taken care of by the government?

To people who say that, I reply that they can't scratch every part of their backs. So we need to do it together. Many governments in developing countries need several kinds of organizations to help. Even in developed countries, you find many NGOs that feel that the Government does not fulfill certain needs. Companies can play a very important part in raising income.

What do you feel are the most pressing HRD needs of the region?

People do not realize that the business sector is out there and can be used. This is where most of the money comes from. Secondly, the lack of training on how to raise income. In the past, we have done all sorts of things for villagers. But what people really want is more income. We need to recognize the skills and potential contributions of the business sector.

What do you think of the Thai educational system?

A good system should train kids to ask questions, rather than only to remember the right answers. We should ask children to come to school with one question a day. People succeed from questioning, not from reciting.

Finally, what cause is closest to your heart right now?

Education. Because it all comes together in TBIRD. TBIRD means getting the privileged, the skilled, to help provide opportunities for the underprivileged and the unskilled. There are five hopes villagers get out of this programme: income, education, environment, village organization, and finally, social well-being derived from the people's own income, because government money will never reach those villages in my lifetime.