Many of us signed up for this IE Costa Rica course wondering, with a 96% literacy rate, good medical care, and strong democratic institutions, what isn’t working in Costa Rica? Our time in-country gave us a more nuanced understanding and highlighted the ongoing work of economic development, good governance, and the interplay between the two.
But let’s start with an important definition: pura vida. It’s a phrase that you’ll hear everywhere in Costa Rica. It technically means “pure life,” but it’s used as a greeting, a thank-you, and as an expression of things going well. It feels a little like the country’s motto, and a little like a North Star for its economic development.
It was special to have Professor Diana Van Patten’s insights on her home country, as well as her restaurant recommendations, starting with an amazing first-night culinary tour through Costa Rica’s cuisines at Restaurante Silvestre in San José that highlighted some of the country’s staple ingredients: rice, pineapple, hibiscus, coconut, and cacao.
We learned more about exports that many people might already associate with Costa Rica, such as coffee. At a sample farm for Cafe Britt, the first gourmet coffee company to establish operations in the country, we learned how coffee is grown and processed and spoke with Britt’s Director of Operations, Alberto Perez. Perez talked about the company’s sustainability practices as well as their expansion to new markets.
Similar threads on corporate sustainability came up in our conversation with Andres Valenciano, the minister of foreign Trade. Valenciano spoke to Costa Rica’s value proposition for foreign corporations: people, planet, and prosperity. He spoke to initiatives such as providing preferential tariffs for sustainable goods and services and building a framework that other countries can use to create their own systems. His discussion of the role of trade in driving health outcomes, sustainability, and social change resonated with our discussions here on campus of business and society.
We also learned about goods that most people might not associate with Costa Rica: advanced manufactured goods and medical devices, which actually make up 35% of the country’s exports. This transition to advanced manufacturing involves a thoughtful evolution of the country’s education and vocational training institutions, which feels relevant for every industrial economy these days.
Current events ran through every meeting. It was interesting to visit right as the world feels like it’s beginning to open up after the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. We heard every executive and minister talk about what has had to change due to COVID, and all of our conversations with companies touched on the war in Ukraine, which has caused price increases for many staple goods and manufacturing inputs.
One final fun fact to drive home how government policies and private sector financing tools can work hand in hand to encourage sustainability and regeneration of natural resources: Costa Rica has more forests now than it did in1987, when the government launched an initiative that pays local communities and corporations to help protect the natural ecosystem. We felt grateful for this in all of our interactions with Costa Rica’s amazing forests and wildlife, both during our official visits and in our free time, which we used to explore beaches, cloud forests, and volcanos. We were all especially thrilled to see sloths!
There are tradeoffs, too. What is the balance between conservation and economic development that improves standards of living for every citizen? Even with this question in mind, Costa Rica has something to teach other countries. It definitely taught all of us. Standing on a hanging bridge in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, overlooking the Continental Divide, we planned to bring some of this pura vida spirit back to New Haven—and to wherever our careers take us after.