Pura Vida-Learning From Costa Rica’s Sustainable Development Success

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At left, Johnelle joins members of the Young Professionals @ IH board of directors at a networking event.

by , Citizen Diplomacy Program Director at International House

With my job overseeing the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program for Charlotte and the surrounding areas at the International House, I get to meet a wide variety of interesting and knowledgeable individuals from all corners of the globe. One of the “perks” if you will, is the tremendous learning experience that comes with having tea with the guy who is responsible for the digitization of Zimbabwe’s Stock Exchange or discussing regional politics with a future candidate for the Mongolian Presidency. Every day I get to learn something new and extremely interesting, and after the learning, the inevitable slap of inspiration.

On this particular day, I was sitting in a conference room at the Charlotte Westin, eating grilled chicken and asparagus and listening to the most fascinating luncheon speech given by President Luis Guillermo Solís of Costa Rica, courtesy of the Charlotte World Affairs Council. As far as luncheon speeches go, this one was exceptional. He was not trying to fill the 15 or 20 minute obligation with the usual talking points given to diplomats and heads of state, he was speaking passionately about something that not only he believed in, but what was the mantra of an entire nation – Pura Vida. Translated it means Pure Life and represents the key to Costa Rica’s economic and political success.

Costa Rica is enjoying a rate of 3.02% in annual GDP growth. A growing economy coupled with a very stable government makes Costa Rica a stand out in the Central American Region. What’s the secret to the country’s success? It’s none of the usual suspects like manufacturing, energy or even off shore banking. Costa Rica has emerged as a world leader in eco-tourism. Yes, a country that designated 23.4% of its land area for national parks and protected sites (the largest in the world as a percentage of the country’s territory) now boasts one of the highest levels of foreign direct investment in Latin America. President Solis then went on to describe a government structure that very few countries could even dream of.

Costa Rica has become the first country in the modern world to constitutionally abolish its military, funneling the entire military budget into healthcare, education and physical infrastructure. For a country that is located in a previously volatile and politically unstable region, this is truly amazing. President Solis then astounded me even further when he said he would not run for re-election. I think I started to choke on a small piece of asparagus at this point. An incumbent politician who had no intentions of running for re-election… was there a scandal of some sort in the offing? Not at all. Costa Rica’s President cannot be elected for consecutive terms. This enables the President to act in the best interest of the country without seeking popularity; after all, he only has four years to cement his legacy.

I am by no means, making a statement that we need to do exactly what Costa Rica is doing. It would not work. But, we can learn from a successful case study in sustainable development. This is proof that economic growth does not have to come with a disastrous environmental cost. An entire country working together for “Pure Life” with a growing economy, a stable government with low corruption, and a focus on health and education. Instead of destroying and overusing resources to increase profits, Costa Rica puts the focus on development and growth through preservation. Charlotte is one of the fastest growing urban areas in the nation and recently ranked number 4 on the Forbes list of “Happiest Cities for Young Professionals”. We need to work hard on keeping the happy balance with growth and quality of life. After all, we know that “Charlotte’s Got a Lot” and we have tremendous potential for expanding our tourism sector. We are living in a great city, in a great country, but every once in a while it’s good to get a slap of inspiration.