Ethiopian Bureaucracy (or Bureaucrazy)

This is a story/warning about what you can expect when you start working in Ethiopia.

I was working for three months in ****, a small city 35 km from Eritrea, in a new university as Senior Expert.

Upon going back to my country, I wanted to transfer all my Ethiopian birr that I had earned, to my bank account in Belgium.

Since there's a big dollar/euro shortage in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian birr is worth less than toilet paper as soon as you take it out of Ethiopia. It's impossible to change birr to Euro/Dollar outside Ethiopia, and very very difficult inside Ethiopia. When you go to an Ethiopian bank, it won't give you Euro/Dollar. And when you go to black market, you'll have to pay 25 birr for one Dollar, while the official exchange rate is like 21.4. And you'll risk going to jail for using black market.

So, when you are planning to leave Ethiopia, you cannot simply go to your Ethiopian bank and request all your savings in cash.

However, in some professions, like when you are expat lecturer in an Ethiopian university, you are "entitled" to transfer your salary every month to your foreign bank account, at an exchange rate which is somehow better than what you can get on the black market, but still less attractive than the official exchange rate.

So, I told this for the finance officer at my university, that I wanted to transfer my salary to my own country.

No problem, he said, but first you need a letter from the human resource office. So off we went to human resource office, where around two hours later, I got a stamped letter in my hand which said "you are entitled to open a bank account in ****"  (I already had a bank account with the same Ethiopian bank, but that bank account was created in another city; for some crazy reason you can only transfer money to your country from an Ethiopian bank account in the city that you work in).

So, two hours later I got my first letter in the long process of transferring money out of Ethiopia. (the first letter I got from human resource office was not correct; they misspelled my name so I had to request a new letter with new stamps & signature from the HR director).

So, happy with this letter, I took a taxi from my office to my hotel, then to the copy center, to make a copy of my contract, which is also necessary to open a new bank account.

After going to the copy center, off I went to the Ethiopian bank.

Once inside, I went straight to the manager, with my university letter and contract copy. Immediately he said "this is a copy -  we cannot accept this - go get your original contract". I had nothing to say on that, so went out and walked around 1km back to my hotel. I took my original contract and walked back to the bank.

The manager then took the original contract, then said "one paper is missing - we cannot accept this paper".

Then I asked him "what shall I do now? the university also has its version of my contract agreement, but they may not give that".

He said "that's your problem. bye".  (i was quite infuriated - remember I already had an account with their bank but opened in another city with an original contract from another university, so the idea of having to open a new bank account just because I was working in another city, already seemed very pointless to me).

So off I went again by taxi to the university. The finance officers were not very happy to see me again. I explained to situation to one of them, and requested if I could have their version of my contract for the bank. One finance officer was so friendly (in return for a lunch at the best restaurant in town) to drive with me to the bank together with the contract to show to the bank manager.

So off we drove back to the bank, the finance officer, me and the contract. Arrived in the bank, the manager didn't even look at us, until we shove the contract under his nose.

Then the manager said, "ok, I can accept this version, but this contract agreement will become property of the bank". The finance officer in turn said "if that's the case, we cannot give the contract agreement immediately, first we need authorization from the finance director". 

At that time, it was already 5pm, so we agreed to continue the process the next day.

The next day, I met the same finance officer in the cafe. And he was quite drunk. He said "let me invite you for some beer, we can do your contract stuff later on". We got drunk together and had some fun with the waitress.

However, after having left the cafe, the finance officer said "oops... I think I lost your contract, I don't remember where I put it".

So, now there was only complete version of my contract left - in the office of the academic vice president.

At that time it was already evening again, so we agreed to meet next day.

So, the next morning, I went back to finance office. Luckily, this time it went smooth, and I got the last version of my contract agreement in my hands from the vice president office.

So, off I went again by taxi to the bank.

This time, the manager accepted my contract agreement, and asked to fill out two forms: one for transferring all my money from the other city's bank account (but the same bank!!) to my current city's bank account, and then another form to do the international transfer to my foreign account.

I wanted to transfer everything, so I opted to transfer almost all the money out of my Ethiopian account in the current city.

However, upon inspection, the manager said "you cannot transfer out this amount of money in one time - by our rules and regulations you are only entitled to transfer out your monthly salary every month - if you want to transfer out two months in one time, you'll need a letter from your vice president".

So off again I went by taxi to the university. However, word was that the vice president was on visit in Germany.

So, I went back to the finance officers, and asked them if their director instead of the VP was willing to make a letter "*** is entitled to transfer two months salary" and sign it, because the academic vice president was not there.

They said: "our director is not here, but you can meet our delegated director. Also the bank may only accept letters from the VP, so we cannot guarantee that a letter signed by the director will be accepted by the bank". However, I didn't want to wait until the VP was back from Germany.

So off I went to the delegated director's office. She listened my story a little bit, and then eventually said "sorry, but this is ,not my responsibility, you need to go the vice president".

The only thing I could do, was waiting....

Eventually, when the vice president was back in office, I quite smoothly got the required letter  "*** is entitled to transfer two months salary" with the signature of the vice president.

HOWEVER, the vice president gave the letter with his signature to his secretary, and then the light suddenly went off.

I was looking at the secretary "please, can I get my letter". She didn't say anything, but finally she said "sorry, there is no light, and we first need to take a copy with my copy machine before you can take the letter".

So, I sat there for a few hours, until the light came back. She was quite sexy and playful, so the waiting time was not that awful. Eventually, I got my letter.

So, off I drove again to the bank.

This time, all the required paperwork was accepted, so we started filling our the form. When it was almost closing time, all the forms and paperwork were filled out to initiate the transfer. I walked out relieved after three days of suffering.

HOWEVER HOWEVER, I'm back in my country now, and got a message by Facebook from one of the staff members from the Ethiopian bank that I befriended:

"Hi friend  I was  try  to send but; without any applications  bank not amend that one  so you send  applications with new swift code"


Finally I got my Euro in my account, after one month of hassle. The Ethiopian  staff member from Commercial Bank must also have spent many hours on this issue, he did it all for free, communicating with me by Facebook almost every day.

You have been very naive my friend. When you accepted the job in the first instance, you should have done your homework on the country in which you were going to. Which is what most people do !

You would then have known that The Birr, is a closed currency. Only useable within Ethiopia.

Secondly - Expat employers that are contracted, are paid to their own country. I have never known otherwise.

These are BASIC checks that you should have done, PRIOR to signing your contract.

I have no sympathy. My advise would be, grow up. Take your Birr, go to a jewelry shop, buy some gold, take it back to Belgium, then sell it.

There are PLENTY of countries with "closed currencies", Ethiopia is not unusual in this matter.

I was working on an expat contract for an Ethiopian university. The funding comes from UNDP, but when the money arrives in Ethiopia, it will be converted from USD to the local currency. Then it will be transferred to and Ethiopian bank account (usually Commercial Bank).

This is the case, when you are working in a public university on a expat contract. If you want to convert your salary back into foreign currency, you may encounter the issues that I described.

Luckily, last week, the money finally arrived on my account in Belgium.


To the gentleman who complained the poster was naive.

You didn't understand the post - the main complaint was bureaucracy, not the tradeable status of the Birr.

The poster had the "right" to have his money paid in currency other than Birr, the issue was primarily getting the dumb, inflexible, inward looking, piece of paper obsessed Ethiopian bureaucracy to behave by their own rules.

There is no question, under any circumstances the government imposed bureaucracy is spectacularly inefficient, time consuming, and generally awful.

Silly rules, pointless paperwork requirements, endless misunderstandings, lack of knowledge, people "take it on themselves" to decide what is the law, then decide to impose that.

We've had traffic officers tell us that using a UK driving license is "against the constitution". The difficulty starting a business or an NGO cannot be underestimated in Ethiopia.

Also the attitude of most Ethiopian apparatchik's is that they are there to fleece anyone on behalf of their own poorly understood definititions of rules long, long out of date by any reasonable measure.

To be honest I'm amazed the poster actually got his salary exported at all. Well done, you have my sympathy for the persistence and working in that environment!

As someone w ho has spent 18 years here i completely agree with Johneyes comments...
It was fairly easy to take out £2000 in 1974 when we left..........
NOW virtually impossible....
I am also surprised our original poster ever got his well earned money out...

What Richydev doesnt know or understand also is that in Ethiopia the rules can be changed at any doing your homework before accepting a job here may not help..

Yes and corruption also helps, if I hadn't promised a scholarship for that young staff member at Commercial bank, I would probably never have gotten my money.

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