By Kirk Laughlin, NSAmericas Editorial Director
When Marco Ruiz, Minister of Trade for Costa Rica, looks around the world for a model country Costa Rica can hope to emulate, the answer is simple: Singapore.
It’s an interesting choice if you think about it. Populations are similar (about 4.5 million for Costa Rica and about 4.9 million for Singapore), governments in both countries are beacons of stability and both historically have been sharply focused on industrial development, trade and education. With Singapore magnificent track record of growth, transparency and dynamism, you have to hand it to Mr. Ruiz for his good taste.
Ruiz sat down with Nearshore Americas a few weeks ago during a special conference on Costa Rica IT/ Telecom Industries at Polytechnic Institute of New York University to talk about Costa Rica’s growing emergence on the world stage and the country’s comfort with being different than many of its neighbors.
The country is emerging according to a well defined script, which is largely based around knowing where to put energy and investment.
Costa Rica was singled out as one of three “New Champions of Competitiveness” during the World Economic Forum conference in Dalian, China, which honored several emerging countries for their capacity to make the most of their own resources. (Ruiz is featured here talking on video at the Forum about Costa Rica’s Competitiveness.)
“We are not a mass market,” said the minister during our meeting. “We are a niche market.” His words echo a frequent sentiment that you often hear spoken by high level executives and government officials from Costa Rica. The message is: Costa Rica is not trying to become the biggest bully on the block. The country is emerging according to a well defined script, which is largely based around knowing where to put energy and investment.
A big part of that investment has come over the years in education and the net result is a skilled workforce, one of the key reasons why companies like Intel and HP have had a long time presence. HP is set to open a new $40 million R and D center and both Baxter and Western Union are planning to open new shared services centers.
Again, this is not by accident. The country rolled out the welcome mat to investors long ago, and people like Charles Sykes saw the upside. Ruiz talked about celebrating the recent 10 year anniversary of Sykes first call center in Costa Rica – two more have been added since - and total employment is over 3,000 people.
Costa Rica’s biggest trading partner continues to be the United States, adding up to about 38% of exports. But Ruiz makes it clear that his country sees important opportunities in Asia and already China is the second biggest export destination. “We are putting a lot of effort into Asia right now,” he said.
Ruiz likes the Singapore analogy for a couple of reasons. Although a city-state, Singapore enjoys the same kind of ideal geographic positioning that Costa Rica has. Both countries are not far from economic giants (the US and China) and that proximity becomes more valuable as investors recognize the inherent strengths in each country.
Costa Rica is not perfect, as Ruiz points out. The country continues to work hard on improving its logistics capabilities and only recent the country choose to open up its telecom market, a decision that comes well later than other regional players such as Chile.
And when asked about the knock on Costa Rica for becoming “too expensive” for workforce labor, Ruiz replies that this is a sign of a robust market where employers compete for well-recognized talent.