- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2000


Governments are usually loathe to devolve power, especially in the Third World. But the Costa Rican government is taking this bold step to empower the country's communities and improve the lot of its people. While much of the developed world ponders how to narrow the economic gap with poor countries, which today is 10 times wider than it was 30 years ago, Costa Rica is busy helping itself.
Unlike the government programs of yore, Costa Rica's plan doesn't entail monumental infrastructure projects, legions of bureaucrats or seven-figure development loans. Instead, Costa Rica's vice president, Astrid Fischel, told editors at The Washington Times, under a new plan representatives elected in town meetings decide which projects should be completed with the limited money the communities receive. The result: Costa Ricans have become so eager to complete the projects that they give their own labor free of cost to complete them.
Private enterprise has also gotten involved in the program, called the Triangle of Solidarity, because it coordinates the efforts of the executive branch, local governments and individuals. Supermarket chains Automercado and Mas por Menos are now buying from small producers in their own communities, and a banana grower, El Esfuerzo, has given land for housing. In addition, commercial bank Banco Nacional is guaranteeing "microcredit" loans for Costa Ricans and concrete company Cempasa is paving a road.
"We have to bear in mind that as a country we have very limited resources," Mrs. Fischel said. By cutting out intermediaries and getting the private sector and individuals to contribute, the cost of projects has been drastically reduced. Typically, it would cost the Ministry of Public Education $11,000 to build one classroom. Under the new program, that price tag has been cut to around $4,000, according to government documents.
And the communities also elect a local watchdog, typically considered the most trustworthy resident, to oversee the project's progress. This person is trained by the government on how to evaluate public works and how to report back to the federal government via e-mail. In fact, part of the government's long-term goal is to bridge the global digital divide by setting up computers in post offices and municipal government buildings and by giving Costa Ricans 10 minutes of free Internet access a day.
All this makes it difficult for government officials to skim off loans and tax revenue. Reducing this "corruption premium" is crucial to making these projects so cost-effective. Like many good ideas, the triangle was opposed by government officials who predictably claimed the government would be "transferring power directly to people who didn't know how to decide" what's best for them, Mrs. Fischel said. Legislators also worried that the federal government would undermine their power by creating new elected representatives and sending federal funds directly to their districts.
The ideas behind the Triangle of Solidarity are far from revolutionary, but their implementation is far too rare. Effective poverty-busting programs start at the grassroots and don't involve huge federal projects or bloated budgets.

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