San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica ranks high on U.N. Health Index

In recent years, Costa Rican government officials have promoted big plans for the country by 2021. One of those plans is known as the “Bicentennial Project,” which promises that Costa Rica will become a developed country in the next 10 years. Another promises carbon neutrality. 

But before Costa Rica can join the world’s other developed nations, it must first overcome challenges highlighted recently by the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index report. 

Costa Rica ranked 69th of 187 countries on the index and led other Latin American countries in terms of health indicators. But it lags behind in terms of education and income levels. 

Each year, the UNDP index ranks countries based on three categories: long and healthy life spans, education, and financial quality of life. 

This year’s report also focused on links between environmental sustainability and equality of access to education, public services and other human development categories, known as equity. 

Although Costa Rica is well placed in Latin America (sixth in Latin America and 12th in Latin America and the Caribbean), the country is not developing at the same rate as other Latin American countries, the report stated. 

According to the UNDP, Costa Rica is developing at the same pace it was in the 1980s, although it is ranked in the category of High Human Development, meaning that the gap between the richest and the poorest is narrower than in many neighboring countries.

One area where Costa Rica is excelling is overall quality of health. According to the UNDP’s representative in Costa Rica, Luiza Carvalho, the country’s health index rating has helped boost its overall placement on the development scale. 

“[Costa Rica’s health ranking] is a result of efficient measures taken in the past to improve access to health care services. Without such high health levels, the country would never have such a high position in the [human development] ranking,” Carvalho said. 

Costa Rica’s life expectancy is 79.3 years, only four years behind Japan, which has the highest health index and an average life expectancy of 83.4 years. 

But on education, Costa Rica is stagnant, largely because for the past six years official education statistics have not counted students enrolled in private universities. 

“The lack of statistics is really hurting the country’s standing on the general index. We believe that Costa Rica would rank higher if we could include those numbers in the study,” Carvalho said. 

Costa Rica scored big on the environment, equity and human development, placing first in the category. It was the only country with positive marks for each of the following: limited global environmental threats, including greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and water use; low water and air pollution; and equity and human development. 

The report praised Costa Rica’s efforts to implement environmental policies such as 1980’s Forestry Law, and to create institutions with environmental goals such as the Costa Rican Tourism Board. Costa Rica became a pioneer on the environmental front by selling carbon credits to Norway and by introducing environmental service payments to protect forests, the report said. 

Costa Rica is one of seven countries     shifting from deforestation to reforestation. According to 2010 statistics from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the country went from a deforestation rate of 0.8 percent per year from 1990-2000 to an annual reforestation rate of 0.9 percent in the past decade. 

“With [the UNDP] report, one of our main goals is to let civil society and governments around the world know that a clean and secure environment is a right and not a privilege. The entire global population needs to change current pollution and consumption patterns,” Carvalho said. 

In terms of income levels, Costa Rica has been slipping. According to the UNDP, Costa Rica’s economic development was knocked off course by the 2008-2009 global economic crisis, because of the country’s dependency on the U.S. economy. Strengthening the country’s standing on the economic development index is one of Costa Rica’s main challenges moving forward, Carvalho said. 

This week, the National Statistics and Census Institute released an annual survey with bad news for Costa Rica’s employment sector. 

From July 2010 to July 2011, Costa Rica generated 87,000 new jobs; but 55 percent of those were low-skilled jobs or offered only limited work hours. More than half were part-time positions. 

During the same period, the unemployment rate in Costa Rica increased from 7.3 to 7.7 percent. Labor Minister Sandra Pisk said the government has created employment programs to promote job access for young people. 

The survey also indicated that 21.3 percent of Costa Ricans live in poverty and 6 percent live in extreme poverty. However, the number of people living in poverty did not significantly increase this year.

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