Monday, September 27, 2010


"Development" is a process a society goes through. When a society develops, its members gain more control over their lives. It's something like becoming wealthier and more productive, but not exactly.

Sometimes we divide the world into "developed" and "developing" nations. These aren't simply "rich" and "poor" countries; development's implications range from fertility rates to prevailing causes of death to education levels and family structures. Development isn't just for economists.

A lot of governments are concerned about how to develop their own countries. Some governments are also concerned about how to develop other countries, which is a different challenge and in some ways much more difficult.

I think development is mostly about strengthening institutions. If all the systems and organizations and ministries and government departments in a country are well-run, they can address their own problems. And they'll do so in a more efficient and more sustainable way than outsiders could. Sometimes this means training, sometimes it means loans, sometimes it means consulting. Sometimes it means benevolent neglect.

My town is full of development projects. The schools may be the strongest institution. Teachers are hired nationally by the Ministry of Public Education. They are then assigned to a town which may be very far from home (somewhat like Peace Corps volunteers!). Rural teachers face plenty of challenges, from limited resources to transportation difficulties, but they do their job admirably. They teach not only literacy but also values. School directors organize a PTA-like committee to administer school resources and raise funds from the community. It's good that the community gets involved. Were all the education funds simply sent from San José, there´d be less accountability. But because parents play such an important role in running the schools, the schools here are generally effective.

Local Government
Although most local government functions take place at the county level, Costa Rican towns have the option to form local town associations called "Asociaciones de Desarrollo" or "Development Associations." Any resident over 12 can be a voting member. They meet at least once a year to elect the council members, who have few special powers but can act as their own entity to speak on behalf of the town, to organize projects, collect funds, and request government assistance. These development associations are an important forum for people to talk together about their town's future. Typical projects include building and operating community centers and soccer fields, but can go as far as building a freeway. The downside to development assocations is that, like any exercise in participatory democracy, you need to get people to work together. They require strong leadership. This is a plus in that Development Associations help develop local talent and leadership. Without local leaders, how could development be sustainable?

Giving Things to Kids
The government gives out powdered milk once a month to mothers with young children in exchange for monitoring the child's health. In fact, Costa Rica offers a lot of grants to its citizens. IMAS, or the Institute of Mixed Social Help, offers scholarships to elementary and high school students to help defray the costs of living while in school. Under very limited conditions IMAS offers grants for improving homes or expanding businesses.

The milk program sounds a bit like a "conditional cash transfer" program--it's a payment for using government services. It's a big step up from just giving things away. When you give things away, it's hard to make sure they get into the right hands--and it's also hard to know if they do any good in the long run.

And then there's me. Peace Corps' first goal is "Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women." Although a liberal arts grad with no budget can only do so much, I think we've got a lot of advantages over writing a check. First of all, our limited funds force us to depend on the community. I'll only find support for the most important projects. And although Peace Corps volunteers have access to some external funds, I encourage my neighbors to look first at what they can do with their own resources.

So what am I doing so far?

Teaching English Classes

Teaching Computer Classes

The most important thing I can do, though, is help people organize themselves and work together. When people are organized and determined, there's not much that can hold them back--not lack of resources, not lack of assistance from the outside.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


A hundred years ago, this was pure jungle. Very Wet Tropical Forest (just shy of rainforest). There were no towns and no roads, although indigenous people lived here. Mostly there were trees.

There were a lot of kinds of trees. Up to 140 different species in the same hectare. Now we've cut most of them down. It's hotter than it used to be, and it rains less, and there's much more erosion. The river is more dangerous. Now we have roads and pastures and pineapples. We've kept a few patches of forest, though, especially around the streams. We're proud of our majestic trees. This one's a Ceibo.


What story would an economist tell about our trees?

Are trees luxuries? A good trunk might be worth a thousand dollars, but instead of cutting it down my friend is proud of his Ceibo.

Are trees public goods? This Almendro is protected by decree of the government. Both Ceibos and Almendros are threatened species, and the endanged Great Grean Macaw depends on the Almendro.

Are trees a crop? San Marcos has thousands of hectares of tree farms, often non-native species like this teak. Monoculture is a problem, but at least it stops erosion. Strangely, it's often these tree farms, and not the primary forests, which receive "environmental service payments" from the government.

Who owns the trees? Many trees can't be cut down without government permission, and even if they fall down they sometimes rot on the ground because the paperwork required to take them out is too much trouble. If we de-regulated trees, we'd avoid that waste. We might even encourage more planting. But maybe we'd also have more trees cut down. We'd release the sequestered carbon (some of it--some might stay in furniture and houses, and some might be re-sequestered by new trees). We'll accelerate the desertification of Cutris. Tough choice.

Illegal logging is one of the top crimes in Cutris. Hey buddy, do you have a license for that log? When we catch tree thieves, the wood--on the road or still in the forest--is given to a nearby educational institution. They front the money to bring it to school property and store it there for up to six months as the paperwork is processed. Then they sell it. San Marcos's high school doesn't have the money or a full-time guard to watch the wood. But the high school in Boca de Arenal makes a lot of money. They might spend $2000 to haul the wood, but then they sell it for $30,000.