Costa Rica

For general information about the country profiles click here.


Population: 4,805,295

HDI ranking: 62/187

HDI score: 0.773

Costa Rica has long been recognized for having one of the most centralized systems of governance in Central America. Since the early 2000s, the government has taken steps to promote decentralization, including a landmark 2010 fiscal decentralization law (Long, 2010).

Local governance at a glance

  • The country is divided into seven provinces, each led by a governor appointed by the president. Provinces are divided into 81 counties (cantones) with local mayors (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2013).
  • Municipal district (districtos) councils are popularly elected (UCLG, 2007).
  • The National Finance and Accounts Office, the Treasury Department, the Institute of Municipal Promotion and Evaluation and sometimes the Presidential Ministry, oversee local governance (UCLG, 2007).
  • According to the 2009 candidate quota law, 50% of candidates on a party list must be female and two people of the same sex may not be listed subsequently. Electoral authorities can reject lists that do not comply (Quota Project, 2014).

Civil society actors

  • Young Citizens in Action is a project supported by the Paniamor Foundation and the UN Democracy Fund to strengthen young people’s participation in local decisionmaking (Paniamor Foundation, n.d.).
  • DEMUCA Foundation strengthens municipal administration by creating technical units that support activities for which they have insufficient funds (DEMUCA Foundation, 2014).
  • Fundación Ambio promotes development and citizen participation in government through training and research in environmental law, as well as access to information and accountability in local governments to strengthen citizen participation in implementing environmental laws (Fundación Ambio, 2014).

Capacity building institutions

Fiscal control

  • Municipalities collect taxes to use for public services, but Congress must approve local taxes (UCLG, 2010).
  • A 2010 law mandated that the central government transfer at least 10% of federal funds to the local level by 2017 and ensure that local entities have the capacity to administer these funds appropriately (Long, 2010).

Key initiatives for participatory local governance

  • The central government created several reforms in the late 1990’s including that of the Municipal Code, which promotes decentralization and citizen participation (Ryan, 2012):
    • The municipal executive elections shifted to a popular election wherein voters must approve any changes to municipal regulations or practices.
    • Open meetings (cabildos) provide a public forum about decisions or issues in a district or municipality.
    • Mayors are annually required to make a public outline of local government priorities.
  • In 2010, a law was passed to strengthen municipalities and provide them with more financial resources (Long, 2010).

Challenges for participatory local governance

  • Many municipalities have limited financial management without regulations for administering taxes (ICMA, 2004).
  • A lack of funding has halted the establishment of set regulations for proper municipal government training (ICMA, 2004).
  • Limited accountability and missing development plans are leading to a lack of result-oriented municipal planning (ICMA, 2004).

List of sources:

Demuca Foundation, 2014:

Encyclopedia Britannica, 2013: “Costa Rica.”

Fundación Ambio, 2014:

International City/County Management Association (ICMA), 2004: “Costa Rica Country Report: Trends in Decentralization, Municipal Strengthening, and Citizen Participation in Central America, 1995-2003.”

Long, C., 2010, The Tico Times: “Bill to Strengthen Municipalities Signed into Law.”

National Union of Local Governments (UNGL), 2014:

Paniamor Foundation, n.d.:

Quota Project, 2014: “Costa Rica.”

Ryan, J., 2012, Latin American Policy: “Decentralization in Costa Rica: The Effects of Reform on Participation and Accountability.”

United Cities and Local Government (UCLG), 2007: “Country Profile: Republic of Costa Rica.”

United Citiesc and Local Governments (UCLG), 2010: “Local Government Finance: The

Challenges of the 21st Century.”

Universidad Estatal a Distancia (UNED), n.d.: