2021 Barbara Ward Lecture: Rebeca Grynspan says nothing is ever so small that it cannot make a difference

Article, 16 December 2021

Rebeca Grynspan, general-secretary of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), gave the 2021 Barbara Ward Lecture, tracing the story of Costa Rica’s journey from being a poor country of smallholder farmers to being a world leader on sustainable development and climate change.

Rebeca Grynspan delivers the online 2021 Barbara Ward Lecture on 6 December. The video is also available with Spanish interpretation on IIED's YouTube channel

Grynspan, an ex-vice president of Costa Rica, spoke of the farsightedness of Costa Rica’s leaders in the past. The lecture series celebrates another leader – Barbara Ward, IIED’s founder – by inviting outstanding woman in development to speak.

And Grynspan, a recent chair of the IIED board of trustees, giving the lecture in IIED’s 50th birthday year and for the first time in an entirely virtual environment, started by commenting on the legacy of Ward, saying that she had opened the door for other women coming after her, for which we must thank her.

Moving on, Grynspan set the scene for her lecture: “Costa Rica, at 51,000km2, is similar in size to Denmark. Yet it has more plant and animal species than the US and Canada combined. 

“Nature is the country’s wealth. In the 1800s when nature wasn’t valued, Costa Rica had no other resource to call upon (it had no gold, silver or precious stones – the things that were valued at the time), so was one of the poorest and peripheral Spanish colonies, with a small population.”

Because of these characteristics and its small population, she said, it was more decentralised and less concentrated in terms of power and money compared with other parts of Latin America. Grynspan said that over time that proved to be a good thing.

She said that even until relatively recently, Costa Rica was a rural and agricultural country of subsistence farmers. Links to international trade and bigger commercial plantations only began to develop with the start of coffee production in the 1830s.

In the 1960s half of the population still lived in rural areas. So the big question Grynspan posed was ‘how did a country of small farmers, rich in biodiversity but poor in other resources, become a climate leader for the world?’

View of a forest with a volcano in the background
Volcán Arenal National Park in Costa Rica (Photo: Tony Fernandez via FlickrCC BY-NC 2.0)

Strong vision and long-term thinking 

She began by recounting three moments in Costa Rica’s history.

In 1869 Costa Rica declared primary education free and compulsory for girls and boys, when no other ‘developed’ country was doing that.

In 1948 after its civil war, the country’s new leader decided to abolish the army, democratised credit and set up big public programmes and institutions for basic needs such as energy access, water and sanitation and for social protection.

In the 1970s when it began to think about climate policies, Costa Rica protected 25% of its territory.

Costa Rica, Grynspan said, “did things when no one expected it and they were not in fashion – but doing the right thing marked the country’s history of success”. These events “were notable not only because of what was achieved but also because of the state of the country when they were done”.

In 1869 Costa Rica’s population was a mere 200,000 people, 94% of whom lived in extreme poverty. Yet its leaders had the foresight to make primary education free and compulsory for boys and girls. They thought of future generations and recognised the value of education, despite not having basic facilities like water, and relying on subsistence activities. 

“They were completely ahead of the game”, she said.

And even though it didn’t happen immediately, because the resources to do it were not in place, it provided a target to work towards, becoming the most important social mobility instrument for the country.

Grynspan went on: “In 1949 when a new constitution formally abolished the military, half of the population was still poor. The person who abolished the army was the person who had won the civil war. He put those resources to better use for the people”.

And in 1970 when the country protected 25% of its territory – GDP per person was US$500. That was one of the lowest figures in Latin America at that time, and still the idea that the country must look to the future – have a strategy and vision – prevailed.

Foresight paid off for Costa Rica

These three actions had massive consequences, Rebeca Grynspan said.

Free and compulsory education led to a supply of educated people. “When the public sector expanded to provide services – we had women and men,” she said. “Women entered the work force, and because the public sector discriminated less than the private sector, women had a more prominent role.”

“Having no army meant we had more resource for social development – when you think what other countries have spent across the decades on defence – Costa Rica spent that on education and health.”

Elites were forced to negotiate, she argued, because with no army, they had no repression instrument to use against the people. That meant they had to negotiate, to engage in dialogue; they had to go to institutions, including parliament. “That obliged us to have a common project. We didn’t change so much because a lot of decisions had to be made through consensus.

“This policy of protecting 25% of territory”, she claimed, “meant that a country of small farmers could become one of the richest, most diversified countries in the western hemisphere”.

Protecting one quarter of the territory became part of Costa Rica’s successful economic story, she added.

And despite turbulent moments in the region when there were calls to recreate the military, the people disagreed. People who had benefited from the money spent on education and health defended the common national project, she said, recognising that the decisions made were permanent and must not be changed.

Even in the ‘lost decade’ of the 1980s, Grynspan went on, when Costa Rica was in the midst of debt negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank and the neoliberal principles of the Washington Consensus dominated global policymaking, the country’s institutions survived. The government didn’t privatise health, education, the pension system or electrical institutions. 

“We opened up the markets for competition but we didn’t privatise them,’ she recalled. ‘There was a strong sense that education, health, electricity for all, social protection, water and sanitation, and national parks were public services, and needed to be there for all. They were an integral part of our social contract and our social cohesion strategy for the common project.

Our climate policies have brought dynamism to the countryside – they are better and less poor because of them

“Many international organisations were pushing us to focus our public services on providing something for the poor,” Grynspan added. “But that would have meant excluding the middle classes and we didn’t want to do that. 

“It would be impossible to have a social compact without the middle classes. So we designed public services for the middle classes and included poor people, and in that way everyone had services of a high standard.”

Despite that approach being at odds with many other countries, ultimately, Grynspan said, even though the very poor parts of the population were hard to reach, it proved to be the right approach for protecting social cohesion. 

Innovative climate policymaking

Having set the scene, Grynspan moved on to talk about Costa Rica’s history of climate policymaking.

“Our climate policies have brought dynamism to the countryside – they are better and less poor because of them,” she said. It wasn’t agriculture that took marginalised parts into the mainstream, it was climate policy. “Small farmers became eco-tourist entrepreneurs and wildlife researchers. People protected the 25% because it represented part of their livelihood,” she added.

And she gave the example that in 1950, Costa Rica banana exports were 88% of total exports; today, they are less than 11%.

Grynspan highlighted five important climate policies, starting with the protection of 25% of national territory – the decision made in the early 1970s.

Renewable electricity was made available in the countryside in 1950s and 60s, and now, she said, “99% of the country has access to renewable energy”.

There were incentives for ecotourism in 1980s and 90s. “The tourist industry was made up of medium and small sized enterprises – there was a sharing of prosperity”, Grynspan explained. 

“This didn’t come without tensions over water and resources – it wasn’t a Shangri La - but this different model was enabled.” And since nature was an important part of the country being competitive, the attachment of people to the environment grew.

She recalled her pride, working in government at the time, in early reafforestation initiatives – such as tax rebates for tree plantations in 1972; forest credit certificates in 1986 and forest protection certificates in 1995. 

“We had to experiment when we started this – had to correct what we did. First incentives went to big farmers, but then we learned to go to small farmers as well. Now we have more green coverage than before.” 

And the final climate policy has been recognised by its winning an Earthshot Prize in 2021. “Our Payment for Environmental Services scheme started in 1996 and has been a significant contributor to change,” said Grynspan, by recognising four services provided by forests ecosystems:

  • Mitigation of greenhouse gases
  • Hydrological services 
  • Biodiversity conservation, and
  • Provision of scenic beauty for recreation and tourism.

“This allowed us to contract landowners for services provided by their lands, using the national plan for forest financing,” Grynspan noted. “Because of early reafforestation efforts, we already had a system in the national treasury to pay for these efforts.” 

“We experimented, persevered, showed tenacity. Many innovations were tried again and again – and that was part of our success – we learned from our mistakes.”

Sustainable development, welfare forever

Grynspan summarise by saying that good climate policy requires two things: first, that trade-offs must be turned into ‘win-wins’. 

“I’m sad to see from COP26 that the trade-offs narrative is coming back into negotiations,” she said. And second, governments must make sure that people feel the benefits of climate policy first hand.

Costa Rica is an example of development not being short term

Costa Rica did both, said Grynspan. It was the result of decades of trial and error – of “being empiricists with ethics and values”. Costa Rica learned how to get incentives right. It realised that culture and education matter. 

“In the second half of the 1970s,” she said, “the policy of protecting 25% of the country’s territory was taught in school and the children’s response was to be better than us and call for ‘Sustainable development, welfare forever’.” 

Experiment, experiment, experiment – and then adapt

Grynspan closed her lecture with some general lessons.

“Costa Rica is an example of development not being short term,” she said. “We had a long-term view but understood that both long and short start at the same time. We had a vision and realised that short term is not linear and long term is not a series of short terms. Many short-term decisions must combine to bring you closer to your vision.

“A country needs a stable strategy and must build consensus to create that,” was the second lesson. “Costa Rica is not alone in dealing with polarisation in society, which can get in the way of a national project being shared by all.” 

And then “Experiment, experiment, experiment – learn and revise” – Grynspan’s third lesson. “Bring in universities, research; innovate, listen to other experience – but don’t try to copy, please adapt. 

“Be resistant to the latest fashion or panacea being sold to you,” said Grynspan. “And to do that you  need to build your own capacity in both the public and private sector. You need to invest in good institutions and bring in the best people,” she added.

And then in rapid succession: “Embrace new leadership – it will bring fresh air; never lose the end game of improving peoples’ lives – poverty does not have to be a destiny and damage is never irreversible – we’ve proved that a dryland can become a forest.”

At the end of an inspiring lecture, Grynspan finished with a lesson borne out by the experience of Costa Rica: “Nothing is ever so small that it cannot make a difference. A small country of small farmers can bring itself to be a world leader.”

Questions and answers followed Grynspan’s lecture, moderated by Dr Tara Shine, her successor as trustees chair.

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