Following his education in Australia at the Geelong Grammar School and the University of Melbourne, Mechai Viravaidya returned to Thailand and started his career with a governmental development agency. He quickly came to the conclusion that the rapid population growth was hindering rural development; however, the country's social mores impeded frank discussion about family planning. That is why he established the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), one of Thailand's largest and most successful private, non-profit, development organizations. Since 1974, PDA has initiated community-based family planning services, innovative poverty reduction and rural education programs, large-scale rural development and environmental programs, as well as groundbreaking HIV/AIDS prevention activities throughout Thailand.
Mechai Viravaidya had a pivotal role in Thailand’s immensely successful family planning program, which saw one of the most rapid fertility declines in the modern era. The rate of annual population growth in Thailand declined from over 3% in 1974 to 0.6% in 2005, and the average number of children per family fell from seven to under two. Mechai Viravaidya also pioneered and championed many of Thailand’s social mobilization and community development efforts that are now taken for granted.
Although Mechai Viravaidya has spent much of his time in the NGO sector, he has also served in the Thai government as a Senator and as a member of the cabinet on four occasions and was the chief architect in building Thailand’s comprehensive national HIV/AIDS prevention policy and program. This initiative is widely regarded as one of the most outstanding national efforts by any country in combating HIV/AIDS. By 2004, Thailand had experienced a 90% reduction in new HIV infections. In 2005, the World Bank reported that these preventative efforts helped save 7.7 million lives throughout the country and saved the government over US$18 billion in treatment costs alone. In 1999, Mechai Viravaidya was appointed the UNAIDS Ambassador.
Mechai also endeavored to empower the rural poor to eradicate poverty where government institutions had fallen short in doing so. To this end, he has established the Village Development Partnership to improve long-term financial sustainability for rural villages. Over the past 23 years, the program has worked in over 400 villages to bring about rural development in the five key areas of community empowerment, income generation, health, environment, and education. The same principles of socioeconomic empowerment were utilized in emergency relief to restore communities to prosperity following the devastating 2004 Tsunami.
Mechai Viravaidya has established the Lamplaimat Pattana Primary and the Mechai Pattana Secondary School, which provides revolutionary private education at no-cost to rural children. In 2003, the Lamplaimat-Pattana Primary School was opened to provide no-cost, private education for the children of rural Buriram Province in Northeastern Thailand, followed by the opening of the Secondary School in 2009. The school has been praised by both the Thai Ministry of Education as well as international universities as a revolutionary model for education as it effectively harnesses children’s creative abilities to solve problems with finite resources.
To ensure financial sustainability for PDA, 16 for-profit companies have been established that are affiliated with PDA and are mandated to put funds towards the non-profit organization. Companies and businesses include the popular Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant chain, the Birds & Bees Resort in Pattaya, as well as Real Estate and Manufacturing businesses. These companies provide a substantial portion of the funding required to conduct extensive rural development activities and operate the Lamplaimat-Pattana Primary and Secondary schools. Mechai’s latest innovation in social enterprise is the Business for Rural Education and Development Co., Ltd.(BREAD), which endeavors to achieve profitability and eventually assist PDA attain a higher level of financial sustainability through business activities such as rural tours, homestays, and e-commerce for rural agricultural products and handicrafts. Mechai believes that this new model of Businesses for Social Progress will foster long-term sustainability amongst non-governmental organizations rather than being completely dependent on third-parties for donations.
Additionally, Mechai Viravaidya served as Chairman to several of Thailand’s biggest companies including Krung Thai Bank, the Petroleum Exploration and Production Company, and the Telephone Organization of Thailand.
For his efforts in various development endeavors, Mechai Viravaidya has been acclaimed with numerous awards, recognition, and honorary doctoral degrees as well as the United Nations Gold Peace Medal (1981), the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service (1994), one of Asiaweek’s “20 Great Asians” (1995), the United Nations Population Award (1997), and one of TIME Magazine’s “Asian Heroes” (2006). Mechai and PDA have recently been the recipient of the Bill and Melinda Gates Award for Global Health in 2007, the Skoll Awardees for Social Entrepreneurship in 2008, and the Prince Mahidol Award for Public Health in 2009.
Mechai Viravaidya is married to Thanphuying Putrie Viravaidya, His Majesty the King's Deputy Principal Private Secretary, and they have one daughter, Sujima Viravaidya. Mechai also has two grandchildren, Mek and Mok, who both sponsor a village in Northeastern Thailand through the VDP.