Truth in Advertising

A small ad that’s been running in the Reader in recent weeks has a message for anyone with a big heart, a venturesome spirit, and an underdeveloped sense of skepticism. “Volunteer in Africa. . . . Work with HIV/AIDS orphans/outreach,” it says. “No experience necessary.” There’s mention of an upcoming informational meeting, and the curious are provided with a Massachusetts phone number, an e-mail address, and a URL. Intrigued, I e-mailed Humana People to People, the organization that placed the ad, asking what I could expect if I applied.

Humana’s contact, Else Marie Pedersen, soon sent a long, informative reply. Six months of training and then 6 to 12 months in the field as a “development instructor,” she wrote. “Anyone can be a Development Instructor. The most important qualification is a willingness to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with people in the poorest parts of the world, and act in solidarity with them to improve the situation.” She mentioned a Humana program called TCE — for Total Control of the Epidemic — “not a project, but a gigantic action, mobilizing every person and all possible resources in getting the worst epidemic in human history under control.”

I’d receive a “stipend” once in Africa. The “program fee” was $3,300, but if this was too steep something could be worked out. “Many volunteers have fundraised the money.”

I wasn’t asking questions because the ad tempted me, though if I were younger it might. I was asking because a suspicious reader had conducted a Web search and then written us, “It seems this organization is a secular cult whose leader is on trial in Denmark.”

That leader turns out to be a Dane named Mogens Amdi Pedersen (often spelled Petersen) who, according to a 33-page “case summary” from the public prosecutor in Holstebro, Denmark, heads a many-tentacled organization known as Tvind — or the Teachers Group — after a village in Denmark where during the 1970s a group of young, radical teachers launched a movement to live collectively and create an alternative educational system. “From this beginning a worldwide organisation developed,” says the case summary. Humana is named as a part of this organization and Pedersen as its leader.

Michael Durham, a London-based freelance reporter, tells me he’s been covering Tvind since the mid-90s. Three years ago he did a long piece for the London Times, interviewing students from around the world who’d gone to a Tvind school in northern England. One was Gita, a New Zealander, “who enrolled after seeing an ad in a free newspaper.” Puzzled that other students were so uncurious, she told Durham after quitting, “I wondered why no one questioned anything about this mystery organisation that was supposed to send us to Africa to do volunteer work.” Durham described her concerns. “One niggle was that [the school] always seemed short of money, even though most students had paid thousands of pounds upfront and were constantly sent to collect more money on the streets of Hull, Manchester and Liverpool. In fact, the college appeared so poor that it was falling apart, and students were told to carry out repairs. Yet when Gita met senior staff from Denmark they seemed to represent a wealthy organisation.”

Tvind raises millions of dollars, says Durham, but little of it reaches the programs volunteers are working on. According to various newspaper accounts, when Pedersen was arrested two years ago while changing planes in Los Angeles, he was living in a multimillion-dollar penthouse on a private island off Miami Beach and enjoying a $5 million yacht.

Durham launched a Web site, tvindalert.com, to help him collect more information on the organization, and it’s become as labyrinthine as Tvind itself — a place to wander around in, reading old news stories and uncorroborated anecdotes and trying to make sense of an organization Durham says encompasses some 140 interlocking companies. One of the companies he lists, based in Chicago, is Gaia USA, which collects used clothing in drop boxes and sells it. In a 2001 Reader article, Gaia’s general manager identified herself as a member of the Teachers Group but said Gaia had nothing to do with it.

Tvindalert.com tries to stay abreast of the trial of Pedersen and other Tvind leaders, which began months ago in Denmark, proceeds in fits and starts, and could drag on, Durham predicts, into 2005. He’s posted an English-language version of the “case summary” accusing the defendants of embezzlement and tax fraud. Pedersen and the others are accused of “misappropriating funds earmarked for public utility (humanitarian) purposes” that instead have gone “to commercial enterprises . . . which are controlled by the defendants and where the profit . . . accrued to the defendants.”

This summary focuses on Tvind’s so-called research and environmental programs rather than its humanitarian work, but it does mention that the investigation showed that at least $270,000 “has been paid from the Foundation to the defendants Amdi Pedersen’s and Kirsten Larsen’s entire disposal under the pretext that it involved support to the fight against AIDS etc. in Africa.”

Tvindalert.com states that Humana People to People is headquartered in Zimbabwe and “operates in 50 countries under several different names.” Else Marie Pedersen is based at Humana’s Institute for International Cooperation and Development in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where, according to tvindalert.com, “there have been numerous rebellions and defections among dissatisfied students.” When I reached her there she was pleasant until she established that I was a reporter. Then she hung up. My call to a Humana office in Denmark was not returned.

Humana has a Web site of its own, www.humana.org, and so does Tvind, www.tvind.dk. Since tvindalert throws everything at Tvind but the kitchen sink, you could check out these sites too.

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Source

(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Chicago Reader, USA
Oct. 31, 2003
Michael Miner
www.chireader.com

Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday November 1, 2003.
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