Poverty in Costa Rica continues to be an ongoing issue as the country suffers from a lack of infrastructure, weak educational system and high food prices. President Barack Obama recently announced a plan to provide $1 billion in aid to Central American countries. This plan curiously omitted Costa Rica from its list, citing “place-based security strategies” as the reason.

Costa Rica’s troubled neighbors—El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, together known as the “northern triangle”—certainly deserve the attention of U.S. policymakers. In El Salvador, the most violent country on earth that is not at war, the homicide rate stands at 90 per 100,000 residents.

From 2009 to 2013, the number of asylum seekers from these countries in the U.S. has seen a sevenfold increase to 2.7 million people. In fact, some analysts are calling this exodus a “Central American Spring” sparked by drug trafficking, violence and extortion.

Though its rule of law has remained intact, Costa Rica shares a similar poverty experience. Poverty in Costa Rica stands at 22.4 percent of the population, a number that has fluctuated little since the 1990s. Roughly 60 percent of the Costa Rican workforce is unskilled. However, the demand for skilled workers continues to increase thanks to new free trade agreements and the privatization of most government enterprises.

This trend is not likely to change if U.S. foreign aid is diverted exclusively to northern triangle states. Alejandra Obando-Hernandez, a researcher at American University’s School of Public Affairs, finds that unskilled Costa Rican parents exhibit “low expectations regarding future benefits of their children’s education.”

There are two reasons for these low expectations that point to how U.S. aid could be effectively utilized in this country. The first is the “books” issue, or the persistent shortcomings on metrics like desertion, teacher training and pedagogical innovation. Only 15.6 percent of Costa Rican children live in homes with some form of post-secondary education; of all students, only 46 percent graduate from high school.

Hernandez attributes these statistics to a lack of school infrastructure and inadequate teacher training. Among the insufficient resources in secondary schools are science labs (61 percent), library rooms (35 percent), computer labs (24 percent) and computers (35 percent). In addition, 20 percent of secondary schools lack sufficient classrooms to host their students.

The second problem is the “butter” issue, or the unnecessary burden that food places on the poorest fifth of Costa Rican families. These high food prices are caused by price controls and agricultural protectionism.

In the case of rice, one sole corporation is authorized to import this staple at low, world market prices. That rice is then sold domestically at higher, price-fixed rates.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, Costa Rica has the third most expensive rice in the world. A basic food basket costs $42.37 compared to the monthly income of $82 for the poorest fifth. Once two school-going children are factored, the cost of education rises to 104 percent of monthly income.

U.S. aid to help poverty in Costa Rica could help improve these statistics by supplementing educational subsidies (already strong) and alleviating the shock to firms releasing their monopoly status. Doing so would create a stronger, more stable regional partner capable of counteracting the rampant violence in the rest of Central America.

Alfredo Cumerma

Photo: Wikipedia

Education in Costa Rica has been a hot button topic for many years. In 1990, the country pledged to work toward the targets set out by Education for All (EFA) under the direction of UNESCO. EFA is used to help achieve UNESCO’s education goals of quality education for everyone and for education being a fundamental part of development.

During the first years of the initiative to improve the standards of education in Costa Rica, the country faced numerous challenges. Some of these challenges included students repeating class levels, high drop out rates, and limited training courses for teachers. In addition, it was found that the education system suffered from a lack of innovative, and passionate teachers.

Poverty has also had a significant impact on education in Costa Rica. Families where the parents have less than six years of education tended to have a lower income and their children usually did not finish school. This only perpetuated the cycle and government support was required to improve the system overall.

In addition, providing quality teachers has boosted education goals. The government pays education professionals more to attract young bright high school and college graduates to go into education. It encourages students to finish school and have a decent paying job, which helps break the low-level education and poverty cycle. There are training programs aimed to improve the quality of teachers as well.

In rural areas, there are special programs to compensate for the lack of teachers. There is a movement to bring technology in and have one computer per student. This way the students can complete high school with a quality education.

Currently, Costa Rica has a 93.6 percent rate for access to education. For youth literacy (ages 15-24) there is an average of 98 percent. Primary school attendance is about 96 percent of the youth population. Costa Rica has one of the highest literacy rates and school attendance in Latin America and South America.

Katherine Hewitt

Sources: Costa Rica Gold Country, HDR, Social Progress Imperative, Tico Times, ASCOA
Photo: Tico Times

Costa Rica Looks Beyond GDP in Gross National Happiness Index

Earlier this summer, the National Teacher’s Cooperative of Costa Rica released its inaugural Gross National Happiness Index. Their results mirror what the Sustainable Solutions Development Network’s World Happiness Report and the Gallup Poll’s 2014 State of Global Well-Being Rankings find: Costa Rica’s citizens are generally happy. However, the fact that this index was compiled and published is of greater significance than the results it contains.

The acute and unwavering commitment to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the ultimate telltale for societal well-being has been distorting policies and steering resources away from sustainable and equitable growth since the Great Depression.

This skewed developmental path has resulted from GDP’s narrow focus on output. GDP, and more specifically its fundamental adherents, has its blinders on an array of other important benchmarks like health, quality of education, altruism and prosocial behavior, environmental health, gender equality, level of social connectivity and support networks, and, of course, financial status.

In other words, the GDP school of thought assumes increased output equals increased income which leads to societies being better off. In a broad, general and abstract sense this seems correct, but it does not hold up in the real world.

A more nuanced approach is required to get humanity back on the right tilt, to allow a better balancing of social, economic and environmental progress. Social scientists are working hard to discover just what makes people happy and societies well off, and how to do so. Their findings may inform a new era of enlightened public policy.

The good news is that when humankind sets a target, we get better at hitting it. We learn how to remove barriers to improvement and shift gears to meet the goals. A whole suite of tools—financial, economic and social—can be tweaked and set in motion to guide and support progress toward an objective.

Costa Rica’s effort to measure their citizens’ happiness marks a trend that has been incubating since 1972, when the King of Bhutan began measuring Gross National Happiness, GNH, instead of GDP. In 1990, the United Nations initiated their Human Development Index, measuring a variety of quality of life indicators. In 2010 Britain declared their intentions to study happiness as well as GDP, and global metrics of happiness and peace, including the World Happiness Report, Global Well-Being Rankings and the Global Peace Index, are on the rise and gaining prestige.

The growing importance of these indicators is a promising sign of a shift. Costa Rica’s high level of happiness and their new effort to measure it should be applauded and replicated by the international community.

John Wachter

Sources: Foreign Policy, Tico Times 1, Tico Times 2, World Happiness Report
Photo: TicoTimes


Costa Rica is known worldwide for its rich rainforests and beautiful beaches. As a result of this scenic beauty, there is an inherent marketability from which Costa Rica benefits, especially in regards to the tourism industry. Education, health and social security are other areas in which Costa Rica has seen positive development. While regionally Costa Rica is viewed as a fairly stable and successful country, it is not without its own set of serious economic and social issues.

Economically speaking, the top 20 percent of the country’s population account for about half of the total national income. The GDP per capita of Costa Rica is just over $10,000. However, about 10 percent of Costa Ricans are living on approximately $1.25 per day. It is clear that there is a significant disparity in terms of wealth distribution. Costa Rica is also a very young country, with roughly 26% of its 4.3 million people under the age of 14.

According to UNICEF estimates, there are upwards of 280,000 children not regularly attending school or enrolled in classes. 93% of children under 12 attend school, compared to only 86% and 78% for 14- and 16-year-olds, respectively. The older a child gets, the likelihood that they will graduate from school decreases by a few percentage points. The combination of these factors indicates why approximately 9% of all children between the ages of 5-14 are working to contribute to their families’ income. The majority of these children are either working in the fields, selling wares on the streets or working from home with family members.

UNICEF estimates that there are 36,000 children living on the streets of Costa Rica. One of the reasons for this high number is because children have either been orphaned or they have left home. In 2010, the National Children’s Hospital treated 2,555 cases of violence and assault toward children. Social attitudes toward corporal punishment in Costa Rica are severely outdated, and it would appear that many children run away from home to escape this abuse. These children in particular are often distressed, hungry and afraid. Because of their desperation, they also are susceptible to being abducted into drug cartels in the local barrios. Being on the streets places children in danger of gang violence, drug trade and sexual abuse.

The child sex industry in particular is a major issue in Costa Rica, as there is a rampant sex tourism industry. The Protection Project estimates that over 5,000 people visit Costa Rica for the sex tourism annually. The majority of these tourists are coming from the United States and Western Europe. Orphaned girls living on the street are the most vulnerable to being lured into underground businesses.

The abuse comes in the form of prostitution, trafficking, and pornography. Child prostitutes can potentially earn hundreds of dollars per day, and trafficking a single child can bring in a profit of $10,000. Costa Rica also has one of the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in Central America with 0.3% of the population affected, or approximately 10,000 cases. Costa Rican street children are at particular risk.

In 2004, World Vision, an international humanitarian group, received funding from the United States to help end child sex trafficking worldwide. The organization’s strategies included using deterrent messages, law enforcement assistance, and prevention programs. In 2008, UNICEF partnered with the Law on the Right of Children and Adolescents to Discipline Free of Corporal Punishment or Humiliating Treatment. This program seeks to reform social attitudes and provide families with advocacy resources on safe child rearing practices.

Additionally, in 2009 UNICEF partnered with the Costa Rican government’s National Council for Children and Adolescents to enact the Public Policy for Children and Adolescents.The purpose of this initiative was to implement a series of educational standards and regulations for children’s rights by 2021, Costa Rica’s 200th anniversary. The government has been heralded internationally for their compliance with international standards on children’s rights.

– Frasier Petersen

Sources: SOS Children’s Village International, UNICEF 1, Protection Project 1, UNICEF 2, ABC News, Protection Project 2
Photo: Latest News Link


Luis_Solis_Wins_Costa _Rican_Election
The dominating two-party system in Costa Rica has finally been broken. Luis Solis, of the center-left Citizen Action Party (PAC), has won the presidential election handily. With most of the votes counted, he won 1.2 million votes, or approximately 78% of the vote.

Even though the other candidate, Johnny Araya, had pulled out of the campaign following a University of Costa Rica poll suggesting a large lead by Solis, his name remained on the ballot and he received 22% of the vote. This win comes despite 43% of the electorate abstaining from voting in the elections, a record figure.

Solis beat Araya in all seven provinces and even beat Araya in his own hometown of Palmares by a ratio of two to one.

The PAC party was founded in 2000 as a center-left party focusing on reducing corruption and promoting civic participation in Costa Rica. Solis ran his platform on building up infrastructure, improving universal health care and pension programs, and promote environmental stewardship. He also focused his campaign platform on his desire to revamp the tax system to include a more progressive tax policy.

Meanwhile, Araya’s campaign was marred by allegations of corruption alongside President Chinchilla after he flew on a private jet owned by the MECO Corporation, which had just won a $65 million contract from the government. Some regional experts have been calling this election a clear mandate against the current administration ruled by the National Liberation Party (PLN) headed by the current President Laura Chinchilla.

One other important fact to observe is the PAC’s current standing in Congress. Despite winning the presidency, the PAC only has 13 out of 57 seats in Congress, while the PLN has 18 out of 57 seats. Although the PLN has sworn to support the PAC in Congress where they can, this might change given the PAC’s stated commitment to cracking down on the corruption of the current administration.

President-elect Solis will be sworn in on May 8.

– Jeff Meyer

Sources: Tico Times, BBC, Blogging by Boz, Tico Times

Environmentalism in Costa Rica
In a time of global environmental degradation, Costa Rica has been a leading force in successful environmental protection. With a combination of ethics, environmentalism, and effective government policy, Costa Rica has transformed from the most deforested area to now recovering over half its rainforest.In the past, like most poverty struck areas, Costa Rica has strived to improve its economy on a global scale and encourage economic development. Foreign debt and expanding global markets drove the country to deforestation. The United States’ high demand for beef lead to 60 percent of Costa Rica’s land being cleared to allow for more cattle ranching between the years 1950-2003.It was soon realized that something needed to be done to save a place that contained four percent of the worlds biodiversity. Costa Rica set goals to impede the loss of natural habitats, conserve 17 percent of its land and inland water, and restore ten percent of degraded area and carbon neutrality by 2021. Putting actions into words, the state now has 40 percent of its land under protection of law and 99.2 percent of the energy used in the country is from renewable sources. Costa Rica is now one of the top destinations in the world for ecological tourism.The people of Costa Rica knew of the precious resources their nation contained and worked hard to make sure those resources would no longer be over-exploited. Costa Rica has taken human progress to the next level. They prove that with education and effective government budgeting, you can not only support and maintain and entire ecosystem, but improve your economy as well.  As one of the happiest countries in the world, Costa Rica is an example that leading good lives can be accomplished while reducing consumption and one’s carbon footprint.– Taylor Schaefer

Sources: Viva Costa Rica, United Nations University, The Guardian

poverty in costa rica
The poverty in Costa Rica surprises many tourist. In the United States, an image of tropical Costa Rica permeates travel websites. Beautiful sandy beaches, tropical getaways. A common suggested destination is the Province of Guanacaste. If someone searched Guanacaste during this week, it is unlikely they made it past the first half of the page without finding the link they needed. The last thing they are likely to find or look for in Guanacaste is social and economic unrest.

For the people of Guanacaste, sandy beaches and tropical getaways merely form the backdrop of their struggles. Costa Rica is no stranger to extreme poverty. In 1982, poverty marred the doorways of 48 percent of households in the country. Activists and policy changes cut away at that statistic and by 1994, less than 16 percent of households were affected. But where does that leave Costa Rica in recent years? In 2011, 15 percent of Costa Ricans were living in extreme poverty. One of every five employees receive all legal compensation, such as paid overtime. Income has decreased by seven percent. Figures from this year show a single percent decrease in national poverty. In Guanacaste, however, almost 22 percent of the regions residents live in extreme poverty.

The Annexation of Guanacaste Festival celebrates the province’s choice to become a part of Costa Rica instead of Nicaragua on July 15, 1824. So why is this normally joyous occasion gaining conflicted attention this year? Over 2000 protestors chose the holiday to air grievances in Nicoya’s central park, a site usually full of celebration. Specific messages were diverse, but the general message to their government was the same: We deserve better.

A prevalent issue among protestors was the lack of response by the Costa Rican government to cure and inform on the high arsenic levels in the water in the Guanacaste region. For three years, citizens have been looking for answers, but their cries have fallen on deaf ears. In fact, Costa Rica’s Constitutional Court issued a Writ of Amparo, or a way to protect constitutional rights, against President Laura Chinchilla and various government agencies due to their lack of action. Roy Wong with the Costa Rican Social Security System, the country’s public health administration, found that the rate for chronic kidney failure is almost 20 percent higher in Guanacaste than that national average. Though no official connection has been made, the high rate of kidney failure and high levels of arsenic coming from the taps of people’s homes could be connected.

Despite signing an emergency decree in March 2012, President Chinchilla and the Ministry of Health have made no apparent progress in finding a cause or solution for the arsenic. In the Writ of Amparo, citizens noted that the government recently issued a similar [emergency decree] due to coffee rust. The health of a bush gets more attention and more budget than the health of the citizens of the Republic. This infuriates us and we cannot let it continue. As it should.

Many onlookers of the protest in Nicoya sympathized with protesters. Hannia Carrillo grew up in Sámara, Guanacaste. While watching both the festivities and protests with her mother, Carrillo told the Tici Times that she agreed with the march. The president’s focus on tourism has left the rest of the province behind, she said.

Many residents felt that focus on tourism lead the Costa Rican government to leniency when dealing with big hotels and landowners. This, some believe, is exhibited best in the poverty prevalent throughout the country. Despite a report by PRWeb.com earlier this month of a growing middle class, the protestors shout something that many in the Costa Rican government might wish to ignore, that they are not treated equally. What do they ask in return? Accountability and transparency.

– Jordan Bradley
Sources: PR Web, YouTube, Tico Times, Inside Costa Rica, Costa Roca Law, World Bank
Photo: Inside Costa Rica