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interview with Mechai Viravaidya

IndonesiaCIA The World Factbook

YI: You mean instead of giving presents?

Mechai Viravaidya: Yes. "We are adopting a village for our marriage." What a fantastic thing. I could not have thought of it. They have been to the village, their friends gave money and the village is doing extremely well. We now have families adopting villages. Before we had companies, now we have schools, universities, newly-married and we have grandparents adopting villages for their grandchildren, because they want their grandchildren to see the joy of doing public good. And they take on a village, about $ 100 per head. So, it's about $ 35,000 dollars. They're boy-girl twins, three and a half years old, their grandparents have given, in the hope that these two grow up knowing, enjoying and feeling great that they have something to do with improving the lives of other people. So, now because of that, we are moving ahead into the schools because we have some funds from the Gates Foundation to expand this Village Development Partnership, to go to more companies in Thailand and Cambodia.

But the other one we want to do is to go to the school kids and teach them the joy of doing public good. So the next generation of people will feel very comfortable about corporate social responsibility because they've been exposed to individual social responsibility. My promise is that I want to make over my lifetime at least 1,000 mini Bill Gates and I'm going to tell these kids, "Thank you very much for your money, we don't need it any more. Would you work with us, we got the money for some other friends."

YI: That would be something. You had mentioned something about discussing this program with the secretary-general of ASEAN. Is this something that is being developed by ASEAN?

Mechai Viravaidya: Well, he likes it, but we need to talk further. He said he's got the money to organize but the money for implementation comes from the companies. But what would be good is for each of the countries in the ASEAN region to give nice tax incentives to the companies that do it in their own country. You won't need government money. We've got to realize that no government can supply all the needs of all its citizens. Therefore, we need to bring in a third party to help. It used to be just foundations and associations and NGOs but now companies with their corporate social responsibility can play a magnificent role in ending poverty, not just charity, not CSR, that's not sustainable. This is totally, thoroughly sustainable.

YI: The PDA under your leadership has achieved a lot with a modest budget and the enthusiasm of thousands of volunteers, especially in the rural areas. You mentioned barefoot MBAs and I believe there are barefoot IT teachers, and now ISR is being introduced. How do you get people to do this?

Mechai Viravaidya: Well, you've got to act yourself in a way you would like them to follow. And we work together, we sit down, think of ideas and we move ahead. You have to be able to communicate to them, what we're trying to do. If you can't communicate it, then they won't follow. In other words, for instance, I need to have a proposal that makes sense for the corporations and give them a chance to go out and take a look before I ask any company to sponsor. Speak to them, I have a show of slides and then I take them upcountry to take a look. Here is a village that's been adopted by company A or B, and here is one that hasn't been touched. See the difference. And the success is from people implementing it. They are the planners who plan, the teachers, the operators, the evaluators and they are the monitors. They report back to the company through a computer program.

YI: Do the corporations that take part in your program, do they get tax incentives?

Mechai Viravaidya: I would say they get a two percent tax deduction. I don't think that's much of an incentive and I've asked for a meeting with the minister of finance to try and convince them, saying, "Look we can get a lot of people out of poverty without the government spending a cent, by making tax incentives far more attractive." But that meeting has been moved five times.

YI: What still needs to be done in Thailand?

Mechai Viravaidya: You ask different people you get different answers. I would like to give one general answer which would encompass many, many things, for instance, education. Education to make you a thinker, to make you resourceful, to make you kind and generous, to make you patient, to make you see that you must solve the problem at its root cause, rather than at its consequence. And for opportunities for education to be able to come back and work in you own community, in your own village rather than having to migrate to cities. So, it's a whole combination, and of course, with the perspective of human rights. We just produced 10,000 copies of the UN Declaration of Human Rights and given out to school children in villages. I bet most of them don't know which human rights are denied in their communities? So they will start learning about human rights. So the UN should take a leaf out of this. Be more active. Otherwise, what do we need the UN for?

YI: Your program has been the envy of a lot of NGOs and even governments in Asia? Is it applicable in other countries? In Asia?

Mechai Viravaidya: Well, if drinking water is applicable, this is applicable. What you're asking is whether some people and some companies to work for people in real need, sleep together band together, respect each other and do something in a sustainable way. I cannot imagine a country in Asia where this cannot be done. It's very simple, very straightforward. It's not rocket science, it's very simple. Just think out of the box.

YI: If it can be done in Thailand it can be done elsewhere?

Mechai Viravaidya: Not because it's in Thailand, because it's done with ordinary people and together with business people. And you got business people in every country and ordinary people in every country. But perhaps with mutual respect.

YI: Khun Mechai, how would you like to be remembered by future generations?

Mechai Viravaidya: I don't know what Winston Churchill when he was asked that, but I don't worry how to be remembered. I just want to continue to do what I do and how I will be remembered, I will have no idea. It doesn't matter.

YI: On that note, thank you very much for your information.

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