Over Spring Break I had the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica, my first flight taking me abroad without crossing the Pacific. I was visiting as a student, studying the corporate environment and the function of leadership in Costa Rica. Although I was only in the country for 10 days, I learned a great deal and had the opportunity to experience a culture greatly different from any I’d been in before.
The business culture in Costa Rica is highly developed and well-specialized. Although agriculture remains important to the economy, Costa Rica has emerged as a hub for transnational corporations seeking a foothold in Latin America due to its longstanding democracy, low corruption, and established infrastructure. At the same time, Costa Rica has attracted many important manufacturing jobs in the pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, and communications industries because it is relatively low cost while also having much lower risk than the many parts of Asia that would typically attract these manufacturing jobs. Tourism has also been a pillar of Costa Rica’s economy, with visitors coming from across the developed world to experience the natural beauty of the protected landscapes that make up 25% of Costa Rica’s total land area. Lastly, many entrepreneurs and corporations in Costa Rica are working to become more sustainable and promote environmentally friendly industries as a primary driver of the economy. This includes giants like Walmart and Gensler that work with local farmers and businesses as well as small local players who use their own limited capital and influence to promote organic products and clean industries. Altogether, Costa Rica’s economy is remarkably diverse and is growing rapidly as more and more companies strive to take advantage of its developed market and educated labor force.
Culturally, I wasn’t sure what to expect in Costa Rica. I had vague ideas about Latin American cultures, but the picture painted is usually one of an underdeveloped third world country. What I found was starkly different. Costa Rica is highly developed. The population is over 98% literate and the country is 99% electrified. The national electric, oil, and medical services are relatively expensive but highly efficient. Costa Rica has a well-developed educational system and a steadily growing economy. All in all, it is a first world country. At the same time, driving through San Jose, we saw unmistakable signs of poverty and crime from ramshackle buildings to the ever present bars protecting the windows of residences and businesses. In this way, Costa Rica reminded me of China. Both nations are straddling eras, with elements of both preindustrial nations and modern economic powerhouses coexisting within a single country. Old and new, rich and poor exist side by side.
Altogether, I had a great trip and enjoyed myself. I also learned a lot. The way we classify countries is far too simplistic. Calling countries “first” or “third” world gives the impression that some countries are better or further along in history than others. This isn’t true. Different countries have different struggles and different economic systems. However, every country has its own strengths and all have something to contribute to the world. I want to continue traveling to experience more cultures and learn to appreciate the unique gifts that each brings to the international community.