Eva Paus, as far as I know, was the first to coin the term “Tico Tiger” in 2005 in her book subtitled “Can Costa Rica become Ireland ?” Richard Soley more recently resurrected the term when he suggested I use it as the title of a talk I gave this week in San Jose, Costa Rica, “Experiencias del Tigre Celta para el Tigre Tico”. “Tico”, by the way, is a form of endearment which Costa Ricans use colloquially to refer to each other as natives of their country, perhaps as we in Ireland sometimes call ourselves “paddies”.
I first met Richard just about 20 years ago, in Brussels at an annual ESPRIT conference. Pretty soon thereafter, when I was an academic in Trinity College, together with IONA co-founder Annrai O’Toole, I collected Richard from an OMG meeting in the height of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland and drove him across the border down to Dublin to give an invited talk on the OMG in Trinity. Richard regularly reminds me, and did so again last week when I met him, of our three passports – American, Irish, and British – being scrutinised at length by gun toting teenagers in army fatigues – apparently employed by the British Army – at the heavily fortified border crossing with the Republic. I think he was quite shocked, actually.
I was in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, last week to give an invited talk on the experiences and some lessons, from my personal perspective, of drama of the Celtic Tiger. The talk itself was on Thursday evening last, to the Club de Investigacion – run by Roberto Sasso – whose members consist primarily of senior executives from end user organisations throughout Costa Rica. Via Roberto, I also met the Minister for Foreign Trade, Marco Vinicio Ruiz and separately, the chief executive of CINDE – the equivalent of the Irish IDA.
It was my first visit to Costa Rica. I had heard of course of its astonishing natural beauty and lush green landscapes, as well as its extraordinary Caribbean and Pacific coastlines. However, I had not realised it was such a geothermally active region, with 38 volcanoes. San Jose appeared reasonably clean, not very much litter, and not very much graffiti, at least in comparison to parts of Dublin! In a very surprising way, it reminded me of the extraordinary beauty of the countryside of Rwanda, which I visited earlier this year, with luxurious forests and vegetation, lurking volatile summits, wonderful animals in natural habitat (e.g, gorillas in Rwanda, jaguar in Costa Rica..), low rise red tiled and silver corrugated roofed homes and buildings, and extraordinarily warm and generous people. I was fortunate enough to be taken, and to have a clear view for at least ten minutes, of the crater of Poas volcano , 2,800 metres high and about a 2 hour (uphill!) drive from San Jose. On the way down, I also visited the La Paz hotel gardens, with a wonderful track through native rain forest and damply intimate to a series of four spectacular waterfalls. Some of my own photos are here. It is the rainy season at the moment, and on Friday afternoon I experienced the heaviest and darkest monsoon cloud in my life: over 12 cm of rain gushed over San Jose in just a few hours. Everyone seemed to take it in their stride, and said it was routine and would probably rain as heavily the next day. And I thought we had had a wet summer in Ireland, but this was something else..
The democratic institutions of Costa Rica are interesting, and ones from which we in Ireland and in other countries, might appreciate. The President and elected members of parliament have four year terms. Since the 1949 Constitution, a member of parliament can only seek re-election after sitting out one term, ie after a four year participation in parliament, a further four years must pass before he/she can seek re-election! In the case of the President, eight years must pass before he/she can seek re-election. In my view, this philosophy ensures that politicians have an opportunity to stay more aware of ordinary society than some of the long term career politicians which we have in this country. The current president, Oscar Arias Sanchez, is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, after his work helping end civil wars elsewhere in Latin America. The next elections will be in February 2010.
In 1948, Costa Rica disbanded its armed forces, and has no military forces and no military drain on the public finances. There has been no civil war since 1948, unlike some of the neighbouring countries. There is a public security force, currently with a small number of aircraft and helicopters, for general law enforcement, border patrol, anti-narcotic activities, and rescue.
The Costa Rican economy has been growing fairly steadily, at about 7% in 2007. It has a high standard of living relative to its neighbours about a per capita income of about U.S. $5,800 (and approximately double that on purchasing power parity – PPP – terms), and an unemployment rate of 4.6%. Consumer price inflation has been consistent at about 10% for the last decade. Both the central government and the overall public sector ran fiscal surpluses in 2007.
Costa Rica’s economy has been driven by eco-tourism (particularly from the USA, Canada and Spain) and agriculture, and in particular organically grown coffee, flowers, bananas, pineapples and strawberries, with Dole and Chiquita. However more recently Intel Corporation is established in San Jose and employs over 2,000 people; Proctor and Gamble employs 1,200 people, and both Hospira and Baxter Healthcare add to the health care products industry. There are untapped (for environmental reasons) oil reserves off the Atlantic coast. 90% of electrical power is generated by hydro-electric units, and all fossil fuels are imported - in Ireland, well over 90% of our electricity generation is by contrast from fossil fuels. Surprisingly, in Costa Rica there are not yet any geo-thermal units [actually there is one so far, and I stand corrected since the original version of this posting - see Ignacio Trejos's comment below], and it would seem that Costa Rica has ample opportunity to become a net exporter of electricity, based on its natural hydro and geo-thermal resources.
In the school system, the Government has given tax breaks for the purchase of computers, and many schools are fully equipped. Programming has become part of the entire school agenda. Turning to the software industry, the Microsoft evangelist in the region, whom I met, has done an excellent job for his company: all school students leave school not only with a good grounding in Office tools, but also as at least Visual Basic programmers. There is very little Java competency. The quality of programming capabilities in the young adult population is high. There are today about 80 independent software vendors, many of them however small, exporting in total approximately 200M US$ worth of services and products.
The Club de Investigacion is having its 20th anniversary year. It has recently published a digital strategy for Costa Rica, as part of a national drive improve productivity and to triple income per capita by 2021. It is available in English here and covers the major themes of productivity in the economy; education; and transparency in government institutions.
Next year, the OMG will celebrate its 20th anniversary year, and its June meeting will be hosted in Costa Rica. The OMG was highly influential on the development of IONA, and as a one time Board member of the OMG, I hope to be there to join in the celebrations of the longest global standards organisation in the software industry.
Twenty years of Club de Investigacion, and almost 20 years of the OMG. Reflecting back to 1988 and 1989, I do not believe any of us would have anticipated the rise of the Celtic Tiger in Ireland just a few years later.
I wonder what the next twenty years will bring for the Tico Tiger..