I spent some time in Costa Rica over spring break, and I realized a couple things. Firstly, how horribly, awfully, terribly cold it has been this winter. Second, that pretty much everything I assumed about the Global South is horribly, awfully, terribly wrong. I know that assumptions are bad. If you haven’t been somewhere or experienced something, there’s no reason to hold assumptions about it. At the same time, I wanted to be prepared for what to expect. Though according to Numbeo and Transparency International, Costa Rica is a more corrupt country and there are higher crime rates than the United States, but statistics say very little about a culture or the actual people who live there. So to say that what I expected—what I assumed—was wrong is quite an understatement.
Just as in any country, there was a visible class divide, emphasizing the disparity in the distribution of wealth. I encountered houses there that were shacks, with sheets of corrugated steel leaning against each other, sometimes even without doors. On the other hand, every hotel I stayed in had all of the amenities to which I’m accustomed. The public bathrooms at roadside markets were small and rather dirty, but no worse than some public toilets in the United States or Europe. San Jose is a bustling metropolis home to over one-third of the country’s population. The resort towns on the coast are full of souvenir shops and good restaurants.
While some might say that Costa Rica is less “developed” than the United States—if the United States consisted only of major metropolitan areas—it isn’t. Instead, the dominant ideologies of civilization misshape our conception of what development means for non-Western countries. There are certainly rural areas that are equally “undeveloped,” with shanty towns and few modern amenities in the United States as well. Only a couple days after arriving, I realized how unfair I’d been to the Global South, and Costa Rica in particular.
Tourism, as for many other small countries, is a major staple in Costa Rica’s economy. However, when I went looking for information on Costa Rica’s finances, I realized that despite being politically incorrect, countries are often judged based on “development indicators.” Those factors include education, poverty and access to water. While those are all important, it does raise the question of why we use these “indicators” to define a country. Why call them “development indicators?” Why not just call them statistics? There’s no need to qualify this data based on the arbitrary standards of Western countries.
In fact, creating narratives around these statistics does a disservice to such countries by automatically placing them in a lower tier than countries in Europe and North America. Quantitatively, countries in the Global South do tend to have higher poverty rates and lower levels of education, but that does not mean that they have any less rich a culture or history. To judge a country solely on statistics would be to have a very narrow perspective and to limit oneself unnecessarily in understanding the complex world we live in. So, while these statistics do have their place, such as for understanding the issues a country faces, they should not be phrased in such a way that positions countries in the Global South as inferior to those in the United States and Europe.
What I learned in Costa Rica can be applied to almost any Global South country. There are so many assumptions and perceptions and prejudices that many privileged Westerners hold about these countries, and most of them are patently unfair. What right does anyone have to judge a place they’ve never been? People they’ve never met? A culture they’ve never experienced? That’s not to paint a rosy picture that these places have no problems and consist solely of shiny resorts, but it’s to say that they are no worse than some places in supposedly “developed” countries. Statistics should serve only as information, no more and no less. One should always take precautions, but that applies equally going to France or going to Uganda. The Global South deserves more respect than it often gets.
—Lily Elbaum ’16 is an international studies major.