• | 2011/10/21 08:00

    Impressions about Colombian bureaucracy

    Un relato real sobre el proceso de vincularse con un contrato de trabajo a una empresa colombiana. Un galimatías de firmas, sellos, fotos, huellas, que enojan con razón a los extranjeros que aceptan trabajos en el país. Crónica de Alexander Wollenberg, profesor del departamento de Negocios Internacionales de la Universidad Eafit (En inglés)


Colombia´s competitiveness ranking for 2011, according to the World Economic Forum, is 68. Among Latin American countries, Colombia is performing not too badly. Although it is behind countries including Panama, Brazil, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Peru (49th, 53rd, 58th, 61st, 66th spots, respectively) it is still ahead of Guatemala, Argentina, Honduras, El Salvador, and Venezuela which claim spots 84, 85, 86, 91, and 124, respectively. On a global scale, Colombia is behind Iran and Russia (62nd and 66th places, respectively). On the other hand, Colombia’s 68th spot could still be considered acceptable given that 142 countries were ranked. It seems as though Colombia is in a process of forming an identity and is sending mixed signals in the meantime.

Colombian bureaucracy seems to validate these rankings as my experiences with Colombian officialdom suggest. I came to Colombia three months ago as a newly hired Assistant Professor of International Business (Negocios Internacionales) at Universidad Eafit in Medellin having completed a PhD and worked in Singapore just before my arrival in Colombia.

The list of documents required for the employment visa did not seem to differ much from that of other countries - submission of a valid passport, an employment contract, and educational certificates. However, the similarities end here.

Visa application process
As a case in point, I am going to explain the process of submitting my university degree as a supporting document. Unlike other countries, Colombia requires apostilization of educational certificates. I had never encountered such a requirement before, and besides being completely surprised, I had to educate myself on what the process actually means and what the steps involved are. The purpose of the process is to confirm the legality of one’s certificates. While this may sound logical, the difficulties are in the unwillingness of the state’s cooperation along this multi-step process. The legalization process consists of four steps, all of which involve transaction costs such expenditure of money, time, and energy. The first step consists of having the certificate or degree certified by a notary public. This step was required by the Colombian consul, but in Singapore it is not necessary to notarize documents that were issued by state institutions. Incidentally, my PhD was issued by a state institution (National University of Singapore) and therefore should not require notarization or legalization. However, since I wanted the work visa I chose not to argue and paid US$100 for this process.

The second step of the legalization process consisted of confirming the existence of the notary public who had previously certified the legality of my degree. This procedure involved a visit to the Singapore Academy of Law and an additional cost of approximately US$20. Another problem was that I had to re-schedule work for this trip.
The third step involved a trip to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore in order to get all previous steps endorsed. The transaction cost involved in this procedure was approximately US$30, additional time and the inconvenience of having had to reschedule a lecture at the institute I was working because the Ministry only processes requests such as mine only in the mornings.

The fourth and final step consisted of a visit to the Colombian Consulate in Singapore in order to get a certification from the consul that my degree was legal in Colombia.

Three weeks later, I stopped in my native Germany for a week to apply for the Colombian visa with the legalized certificate in hand from the Colombian consul in Singapore.

Post-arrival process
The real odyssey, however, began after my arrival in Medellin, particularly the application for the Cedula de Extranjeria and the opening of a bank account. In order to do anything in Colombia, a foreigner needs a Cedula de Extranjeria. The application consisted of several steps. The first step involved a payment to DAS through Davivienda on a form with very specific details – it was unlikely a new foreigner with limited Spanish would comprehend the form. Fortunately, a colleague helped me.

The second step consisted of a health check which was done at the university and a blood test, which could only be done at another hospital. DAS did not accept my complete Singaporean medical documents in English.

The third step consisted of taking photographs, which had to be taken against a blue background. With all documents in hand, the final step consisted of a trip to DAS in order to apply for the Cedula de Extranjeria. The area around DAS was cordoned off to traffic. Cellular phones were not allowed inside, and persons were not allowed to enter in pairs, so my friend had to wait outside. Inside, I had to fill out another form (in Spanish). Then I was directed to another room where my face was photographed from several angles and all 10 fingerprints were taken. After this procedure, I was told to wait for the Cedula de Extranjeria two months. In the meantime I should use the stamp from DAS in my passport as a temporary document. The laminated card arrived on time, exactly two months later.

Implications for Colombia
In spite of claims by DAS that the temporary Cedula de Extranjeria is a valid document, it is not widely recognized in real life. I had problems with opening a bank account and Bancolombia would not accept direct salary deposits into my bank account without the laminated Cedula de Extranjeria card. Such unexpected problems can affect businesses as well. In such cases, unanticipated bureaucratic hurdles will lead to higher transaction costs. If my transaction costs were to be extended to a business level context, Colombia could forego important businesses opportunities. On the other hand, Colombia also knows how to appeal to advertise its medical and tourism sectors, and people in Medellin appear to be very eager to project a positive image to foreigners. Hopefully, this will soon be reflected in the competitiveness rankings as well.

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