You are probably wondering why it has taken Fields of Hope such a long time to get registered in Ethiopia (and why we haven’t updated in so long!). So, we thought it would be good to write it all out and let you see what our journey has been like over the last 15 months as we went through the Foreign Charity registration process in Ethiopia.
After working on the Yetesfa Mesk International Academy project proposal for nearly two years, we started the registration process at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington DC, USA in August of 2014. The application packet that we submitted included (but not limited to!) a copy of our registration as a non-profit organization in Pennsylvania, a copy of our bylaws, multiple letters signed by our board, a letter of support from the U.S. State Department, confirmation that we are a 501c3 organization and, finally, the project proposal itself. Four of the documents in the packet had to be notarized, authenticated by Pennsylvania, authenticated by the U.S. State Department and authenticated by the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington DC. It was a long process, but was very encouraging that the person who received our application at the embassy was excited about the school!
From there, our application packet was sent to the Ethiopian Foreign Affairs Office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. According to the Embassy in Washington DC, the application was to arrive at the Foreign Affairs office within 2-3 weeks. We checked with the Foreign Affairs office after a month, but were told that they had not received it nor anything else from the Embassy in Washington in quite some time. We continued to call and check if it had arrived and, after pressing them on the issue for a few weeks, they said that they had received it after all and that we should come in for a meeting; but, they also said that there were problems with our proposal that would need to be fixed. Little did we know that this would be the first of many office complications over the next few months.
We arrived at the office to have our meeting with the person reviewing our application, the same one who told us on the phone about the problems that needed to be fixed. To our surprise, they could not remember a single problem with our application and could not find the list of problems that they had written down. Even more surprising, after we answered a few of their questions, they told us that they would send it to their higher ups for final approval! By the time we got our approval from this office, it was the middle of November 2014.
Our application was then sent on to the Charities and Societies Agency (ChSA) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This is the office that every local and international non-profit organization must work with in order to receive their license to operate in Ethiopia. Upon arriving at the office, the person we needed to talk to was not there. But, we were told that we needed to fill out an application and rewrite our project proposal in their own format. Little did we know that we would be rewriting this project proposal over and over again for months to come.
We went home, filled out the application and rewrote the project proposal. We brought it back, only to find out that the format we had previously been given was outdated and we needed to rewrite it again in the new format! When we first met and discussed our proposal at the ChSA office, we were told that this project could never work and never get approved. We continued to discuss our project with this person and he ended up being in full support of our project and wrote letters of support to the next office that we had to meet with! After rewriting the proposal in the new format and a few more meetings, we found ourselves at the beginning of December 2014.
With our recommendation letter from the ChSA in hand, we proceeded to the Ministry of Education (MoE). Not surprisingly, we were initially met with opposition. The idea of a nonprofit school that charges no tuition could not fit into the current system. We simply asked that the person would review our proposal and then we could go on from there. To our surprise, the very next day the person was in full support of our project and asked us to talk to another team at the MoE!
We set up a meeting with the department head of the team in the MoE that we needed to work with. We were thrilled that he was very supportive of our project and even told us that they want to learn from us and collaborate in the future! We were told that the proposal would now be passed on to a team of people who would review it and work with us to get it approved. A few days went by until we were called in to have a meeting with the person leading that team. Before they would even review it, guess what we had to do? Rewrite our proposal in yet another format!
We submitted the rewrite and went back a few days later for a meeting. The person leading the team was very against our project from the start and gave us an entire list of things that would need to be removed or edited. Some of the things we couldn’t argue with and we removed them from our project proposal. Other things we left in because there is no law against them and we felt that they were crucial to our school. This person continued to fight us on wording and other activities in our proposal. This became a bit complicated because we are not just a school, but also a foreign charity. We continued to discuss and negotiate with this person over the next few weeks. By the way, the other three people on the reviewing team had no problem with our proposal and were all ready to sign off on it. After more than two months of edits, two more rewrites, meetings, arguments and negotiations; we finally received the approval from the Ministry of Education! By now, we were about at the end of February 2014, which was when the school project was originally scheduled to start. We were discouraged, but kept pressing on.
After we were done at the Ministry of Education, we had to go back to the Charities and Societies Agency to finish up some paperwork before we could receive our license. One of the things that we had to do was print the name Fields of Hope in two newspapers to notify the public of our application and to confirm that there is nobody else in Ethiopia using this name. Two weeks went by and we hadn’t seen our name printed. We went back to the ChSA to check and they said it had been sent to the publishers and that we should keep waiting. Another week went by, nothing in the papers. Again, we went back and asked what was going on and if there was anything else that we needed to do. They looked through their files and told us that the name had been printed after three days! We should have started looking sooner! We went and bought copies of the Amharic and English newspapers from that day and gave them to the ChSA. But, they were not satisfied with the Amharic translation and told us that we would need to get it reprinted. They thought that the ‘of’ in Fields of Hope should be pronounced like ‘off’. It took us a few hours to explain that the word ‘of’ is not pronounced like ‘off’ and, therefore, the Amharic translation in the newspaper was correct. They finally agreed and gave us our license that same day! This was on March 24th, 2015.
Little did we know that this was not the end of the line! From there, we would have to sign an agreement with the Addis Ababa Finance and Economic Development Bureau. We went to that office to see what their expectations and requirements were. No surprise here, they wanted us to rewrite our project proposal in yet another format (this was our sixth time rewriting this proposal!). We also had to rewrite our budget in their format, which was much more complicated than any of the other offices required. We went ahead and did the rewrites and submitted our proposal to this office. This was the beginning of April.
A few days went by and we didn’t hear anything. So, one of our team members went to the office to find out the status of our proposal. The person reviewing our application told us that we used their format, but not their wording. Because we couldn’t understand exactly what they meant, we set an appointment for all of us to go the following morning and figure it out.
We arrived at the office the next morning and the person reviewing our case picked apart our project proposal, told us that it was written all wrong, told us that we had no idea about nonprofit work, laughed at us and argued over every tiny detail. As an example, one of the things that we had to submit was a promissory note for funding from the Fields of Hope office in the US. We wrote this letter to say that Fields of Hope USA would “fully fund” the project in Ethiopia. This person told us that the term “fully fund” is not specific enough and that it could mean the head office was only planning on giving $5 or $10 to the Ethiopia project. They said that the letter should say the exact financial amount that the head office would fund. It took us nearly an hour to explain why the term “fully fund” was actually better and that a new letter would require being signed, notarized, authenticated by Pennsylvania, US State Department and the Ethiopian Embassy in DC. Finally they conceded their point. They also had a problem with our Fields of Hope stamp. They wanted it to be round instead of rectangle and with blue ink instead of black. This person actually told us that our stamp was not a stamp and proceeded to walk around the office and ask their coworkers if it looked like a stamp to them! All the coworkers said that it looked like a stamp, but this person would not give in. In short, it was the most difficult meeting that we had up to this point. We walked out of the office discouraged and angry. Thankfully we were near the best baklava in town, which cheered us all up a bit.
We set to overhauling our project proposal once again – for the seventh time. This was probably the most difficult rewrite yet. Instead of just being able to copy and paste the proposal we had already written into this new format, they wanted us to use new wording and change major aspects of our project. They also wanted the proposed budget to be written in extreme detail, down to the number of pencils and tape we would need for the next three years! After spending quite some time working on this new edit and when we were confident that they would accept it this time, we resubmitted the proposal.
Again, they were not satisfied and wanted further edits. We were discouraged, but not defeated. We moved on, rewrote the project for the eighth time and submitted again. Time went by, there was little to no communication. The person took vacation time, the election came and went and we couldn’t get any answer from them. After a few more meetings and a few more edits, we submitted it one last time to this office. Shortly after that, Dan and Ruth left for the US in anticipation of the birth of their son, Jeremiah. This was in May 2015.
Our team in Ethiopia continued to keep up communication with this office. Dan and Ruth would edit the project and email it over to be printed and resubmitted. Time continued to go on and the person at the office took more vacation. Finally, in November of 2015 we heard that they approved our project! In fact, the very person who had been so against our project had become gentle, humble and encouraging. They even went so far as to say that they trust us and will help us move on to other offices!
We received their letters of support and went on to the Addis Ababa Education Office. That’s where we stand now. We may have to edit another time or two, cross a few more t’s and dot a few more i’s; but we are nearly done! The last 15 months of paperwork have felt long, but we are so grateful that the end is in sight!
The next step in opening Yetesfa Mesk International Academy will be to raise $300,000 to cover the expenses of the first year. Every dollar counts and we hope that you will consider heading over to our donation page and partnering with us in this work. More information on other ways to get involved and donate will be coming soon!