Honors Thesis Spotlight: The Role of Education in Improving Human Development in Central America: A Comparative Analysis of Guatemala and Costa Rica

Costa Rica and Guatemala are two comparable countries in Central America that share similar geographic and cultural characteristics, yet maintain noticeably different levels of human development. Additionally, both countries are not considered economically wealthy (2). Regardless, Costa Rica is ranked first out of 140 countries and territories on the Happy Planet Index. The Happy Planet Index is calculated by life expectancy, wellbeing, ecological footprint, and inequality. “With 98% of the country running on renewable energy and 53% of its land covered in forests, Costa Rica also boasts impressive innovations and successes in sustainable development, making the country a global leader and example for combatting climate change,” (2).

Conversely, Guatemala has consistently been one of the least developed countries in Central America and the Latin American and Caribbean region. Poverty rates continue to soar; and education and health coverage are among the most unequal in the region. Guatemala’s social spending on public goods and services ranks as one of the lowest in comparison to neighboring countries, averaging around 6.9 percent of GDP in the past decade (2).

The researcher, Anna Haley Lewis, thus raises multiple questions. How can two countries so similar differ so greatly in human development and quality of life? Lewis also questions whether education played a prominent role in Costa Rica’s development over the last few decades. The researcher studies levels of human development in the Central American region, as compared to the larger region of the Americas and the Caribbean, to analyze the power of education in its ability to raise overall human development within a country and lift individuals out of poverty (6).

It is highly agreed upon that an increase in educational attainment correlates with increases in individual human capital and the potential for more skilled and higher-paying jobs. Not only has there been evidence to support this statement, but education has also shown itself to improve health and quality of life. Mazumder, a United States schooling law passed in 2008, found a positive correlation between overall health status and education, with the exception of only a few specific health conditions (e.g. vision and hearing abilities, cardiovascular problems, etc.).

Despite Central America’s outperforming countries in overall human development, the continent still faces multiple challenges regarding the quality, comprehensiveness, and outcomes of public education systems in the region. Challenges include a lack of quality teachers (they do not have the necessary qualifications), the need for school system evaluations, the lack of school retention, frequent grade repetition, and school dropout rates.

After the researcher calculated the correlation coefficient for the education and health indices, it was apparent that there were few statistically significant results. The history and political foundation of Costa Rica were therefore analyzed to understand what specific factors inhibit development. One primary factor that built the foundation for the high standard of human development Costa Rica has today was the difference in colonialism practices throughout Central America. In Costa Rica, there was a lack of the brutal colonialism felt in neighboring countries.

“Social classes during the colonial period intermingled more so than in other Central American countries, primarily due to a fairly racially homogenous society in comparison to nearby countries. When coffee elite rose to power and importance in the early 1800s, Costa Rica had a considerably small population, specifically a small indigenous population, which equated to a scarcity of labor. The lack of labor available forced farmers to work their own lands, minimizing the presence and influence of slavery,” (36).

Progressive educational policies in the late 1800s, such as compulsory primary education for all, as well as educational and social reforms of the 1900s, are all political and historical factors that support Costa Rica’s human development successes. Coupled with their political good fortune and recent reforms in health and education, their high development is understandable.

 In comparison to Costa Rica’s success, Guatemala struggles to provide resources for its rural and indigenous communities (40). The researcher finds these areas to be largely underserved and that the initial inequalities among education and economic performance rooted in these communities will continue to increase as they are continuously neglected.

 “In Guatemala, due to the high proportion of inequality of resources to rural and indigenous populations, it is pertinent that government policies be established to specifically target these underserved communities…the foundational aspects of Guatemalan law and political discourse must be altered in order to allow for similar reforms [to Costa Rica] to take root,” (40).

Anna Lewis is a graduate of the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University. This post was based on Anna’s honors thesis, written by COSSPP Blog Intern, Jillian Kaplan.

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