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Lessons from a country with no army

By Karin Geiselhart - posted Thursday, 4 December 2008

Costa Rica presents some alternative policy settings to those current in the United States. For two months recently I studied Spanish in the small Costa Rican town of Grecia, about 30km from the capital, San Jose. This visit was bracketed by five weeks in total in New Jersey. As this period included the pre and post election period in the US, policy principles were much in evidence in both countries. Whether seeing the outcomes in either society, or hearing terms like “wealth redistribution” and “socialism” bandied about, the assumptions of social policy were fairly clear. My casual but eclectic observations of these two societies show how contrasting approaches flow through to social demographics, attitudes and national capabilities.

The obvious differences are easy to spot: the United States is still the most powerful nation on earth, on the brink of recognising and reaching out for a true change of direction. Its advanced infrastructure, skills and services are second to none. Costa Rica can be considered part of the Second World, as it is developed in many ways but has a gross domestic product national income of just $10,658, based on 2007 World Bank purchasing power parity tables.

The US, using the same yardstick, has a GDP of $45,790. The world average is $9,900, which puts Costa Rica just above the average. (Australia comes in at $34,882.) Their cars, as my spouse observed, are older, cheaper, and smaller. The hot topic of the last few months has been the economy, both global and local. Looking at the bang each country gets for their bucks is one way to understand the differences in their social policies.


Costa Rica is a modest sized and extravagantly tropical Central American democracy. It has both Atlantic and Pacific coasts, but well over half of the 4 million people live in the long, hilly central valley. In 1949 they abolished their armed forces, after a nasty little civil war. That suggests a startling policy assumption: imagine a nation simply deciding that military spending is unnecessary, or even negative? Instead they quietly invested in education, social services and health care. Understandably, they are very proud of this achievement.

The justification for this pride was plain to see in the town where I studied, which was typical. Costa Rica has a literacy rate of nearly 100 per cent, and a very solid national newspaper La Nation that provides in depth information about local and international events. Inclined as I am to talk about politics, globalisation and environmental issues to carpenters or cows, the level of discourse was quite refreshing compared to my supposed peers in the US. “Other countries hate us because we’re rich” and “all governments are corrupt” are conversation-stopper statements familiar in the US, but hardly conducive to change.

The beauty of Costa Rica was often breathtaking - like seeing the live Arenal volcano, tipped in red, even after a tropical downpour. To get to the Atlantic enclave of Tortuguero we traveled by boat for nearly two hours. There we saw a huge sea turtle laying her eggs on the beach. This carefully managed protection zone was established by an American scientist decades ago, who saw the turtles were in danger. The Costa Ricans, or “ticos”, are intensely aware of their natural treasures and beauty, and of the mixed blessings tourism can bring.

Eco-tourism is a key industry, along with tropical plants, coffee and sugar for export. With the regularity of the torrential rains, I’m sure they will soon find a way to export water. But these delights would not have meant much to me if there had been a feeling of threat or violence or need for great vigilance. No doubt the coast of Somalia is beautiful. It was the people and the balance of Costa Rica that won my admiration.

Costa Rica is a very middle class society, with levels of income inequality probably similar to the US in the 1950s. Large international chains and fast food outlets are mostly confined to the capital. More humble “sodas” provide quick local food for the masses.

Their social security system is simple: everyone pays 9 per cent of their salary into the fund, and this provides all the health (including dental) and social services, as well as aged and unemployment pensions. Their health system is good enough to be mentioned in The Economist magazine as a destination for medical tourism.


Education up to tertiary level is nearly free and of high quality, so many young people are improving their skills through a trusted credentialing process. While lots of people make use of the social services, there don’t seem to be many slackers. This is not a culture of alcohol and indulgence, but a society of workers. They seem to maintain strong family ties and religious observance without slavish obedience to the Catholic Church’s dogma on birth control. Their families are becoming smaller, and more women are having careers.

They have the added blessing of being fairly homogeneous ethnically. Their Catholicism does not preclude taking pleasure in displaying the female form. They demonstrate a relaxed sexuality without sliding towards sleaze. I never saw a woman being accosted or intimidated. Of course, it happens, and there are government campaigns to reduce both violence against women and drink driving.

Small scale entrepreneurism is everywhere, with front rooms serving as beauty salons, and signs offering anything from shoe repairs to second hand American clothes on every street. My home stay family is a random example: a daughter studying to be a nurse, and a bakery is being set up in their garage. Teachers at the academy where I studied were planning a face painting business for children’s parties, an entertainment not yet common there.

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About the Author

Dr Karin Geiselhart has a Phd in electronic democracy and did post-doctoral research on e-business. Formerly a journalist in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, she has also lectured at the Australian National University in electronic marketing. Currently she is an Al Gore Ambassador for climate change, and involved in green property development and community green entrepreneurial activities.

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