What price idealism?

March 17, 2000

For idealistic young students, volunteer work abroad may seem attractive. But one organisation, which has recruited in UK universities, stands accused of exploiting such idealism for unscrupulous ends. Michael Durham reports

Gita, a New Zealander, spotted the advert in a free newspaper. "Work for Africa!" it proclaimed. To a young student eager to travel and already thinking of volunteer work, it seemed the ideal package - six months of preparation in England, then six months working with poor farmers in Angola, Malawi or Mozambique. And perhaps best of all, she did not need any qualifications.

There was, however, a price tag: Pounds 2,000 for board, lodging and tuition. After paying that sum, Gita arrived last autumn at the College for International Cooperation and Development (CICD), near Hull, a large brick building in extensive grounds.

It seemed a respectable venture, promoted in full-colour brochures and advertised on the internet with glowing endorsements from former pupils. She settled in to begin her studies. But a number of things about the college were not quite right.

There were only about a dozen students and just two staff to be seen on an enormous campus. How was it all paid for? The study programme was odd. Students spent time collecting "points", but not much of the curriculum was devoted to studying Portuguese or the practicalities of working abroad.

A great deal of time was spent fund-raising, handing out recruitment leaflets in university towns such as Birmingham, Manchester and Hull, cooking, cleaning and carrying out repairs. Gita also noticed a relentless work ethic and a curious drive for team spirit, fostered by the two teachers, Rolf and Karen. The students were never allowed to sit still. They were constantly being drafted in for team games, work groups and sing-songs.

Finally Gita suspected she was not being told all there was to know about the college. She wanted to know what happened to the hundreds of pounds the students raised in the street, but the accounts she was shown were incomplete. So she turned detective - asking questions, checking newspaper articles, even looking at the names on the letters brought by the postman. Other students jokingly called her "Miss Marple".

What Gita eventually discovered led to nine students leaving the college in January, complaining of deception. Together with fellow students from Germany, Sweden, Ireland, France and Poland, Gita asked for her money back and went home, where she has embarked on a campaign to warn others who might be tempted to sign up.

Miss Marple's sleuthing started with an organisation called Humana. She knew that the College for International Cooperation and Development was linked with an international development aid charity called Humana People-to-People, which had a headquarters in Zimbabwe. There were also links to private schools and colleges in Denmark, Norway and the United States, all of which advertise on the internet.

"I was determined to find out who I would be working for. I wanted to know who the managers of Humana were," Gita says. "I started out asking several students from one of the Danish schools about Humana and discovered they all had a robotic answer: 'We don't really know Humana, as long as we are going to be doing good work in Africa we don't see the need to find out who they are.'" The mismatch between the apparently impoverished Hull college and the lifestyle of some of the senior Danish staff rang alarm bells. The vast Zimbabwe headquarters, Gita learnt, was allegedly occupied by a handful of people equipped with the latest computer and mobile phone technology.

So where did this money come from? Finally Gita discovered the answer. The college, she learnt, is connected to a vast and wealthy international organisation, Tvind. And this organisation - despite its ostensibly educational and philanthropic aims - is one that has concerned youth leaders, charities and governments for years.

It turned out that the leading cult advice groups in the United Kingdom had a file on Tvind - which trades under many different names - and warn would-be students to stay away. At least one European government has cited Tvind in official documents as a cult that preys on young people.

In their search for adventure, Gita and her student pals had walked unwittingly into an organisation so mysterious that even former devotees know little about it. Is it really concerned with helping the world's poor, or with money, power and politics? Gita and other students at the college in Hull did not stop to find out. "Our dreams fell apart at the seams," Gita says.

There is a lot more to Tvind than Gita or any other outsider is ever likely to find out. It all began in Denmark in the late 1960s, when Mogens Amdi Petersen, a popular but rebellious young schoolteacher, left his job at the Kroggaardsskolen state school near Odense. According to legend, he was sacked for refusing to get his hair cut.

What followed was to affect the lives of thousands of idealistic young people over the next 30 years, first in Denmark, then in the rest of Europe, Africa and the United States. Feeling himself betrayed by mainstream education, Petersen decided to found a school system of his own.

The Tvind project began in a windswept field on a farm outside the Danish village of Ulfborg. Petersen, his friend Kirsten Larsen and a small band of enthusiasts laboured to build, with their own hands, two "alternative" boarding schools, the Necessary Teacher Training College and the Travelling Folk High School.

Next, Petersen set about recruiting young people to "train". Posters went up in universities and job centres. In the anti-authoritarian atmosphere of the early 1970s, young people flocked to join, attracted by an "experimental" course that included minibus expeditions to developing countries and spells working in factories. Over the next few years, Tvind students in their battered buses became a familiar sight in western Denmark as well as in India, the Middle East and South America. The anti-establishment schools even received state support.

From this modest start, a global empire grew, first with more schools in Scandinavia, then a second-hand clothes charity, then humanitarian aid projects in Africa and Central America to which volunteers from rich countries were sent as "solidarity workers".

Today Tvind recruits young people in Europe to work in schools and second-hand clothes shops under the names Humana and UFF; in the US it does the same under the title Planet Aid. In the third world, it delivers aid under the slogans "Development aid from people to people" and "Hope".

It runs numerous institutes and at least one "university", the One World University in Maputo, Mozambique. In Norway, it runs the One World Volunteer Institute; in the US it has the Institute for International Cooperation and Development with two campuses in New England; and in Britain there is the college near Hull. All attract students from around the world.

Throughout the former "front-line" African states of Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Angola and Namibia, Tvind supports "development aid projects", ranging from tree-planting schemes to agricultural programmes, children's towns and Aids education. In each country it maintains a network of schools, colleges, training schemes and institutes, many with government support. It runs similar projects in India, Central America and the Caribbean.

It is, on the face of it, very philanthropic. According to its supporters, up to 40,000 young people have attended Tvind schools and colleges. But, as Gita and many other students have found, it is also an empire with a dark side. According to the testimonies of many who have now left the organisation, Petersen's revolutionary baby has grown into a monster.

The picture that emerges from such sources, supported by investigative journalists and official reports, is of a secretive organisation with a covert structure and cult-like agenda and a disturbing power over the young people who come into contact with it. Tvind, they say, has become a cult, and Petersen its guru.

The organisation is known to have a secret inner circle of several hundred loyal followers known as the Teachers' Group, who hand over almost all their income and personal property throughout their careers.

From this base, the organisation has become wealthy. An official 1994 report by the Danish auditor-general put Tvind's assets in property and private trust funds in Denmark alone at Pounds 30 million. A private report circulated by charity officials in Belgium estimates Tvind's total wealth at "billions" of Danish crowns. According to Danish newspapers, much of that money has been spent on acquiring commercial plantations, farms, factories and even a shipping line, all unrelated to foreign aid or educational work. Tvind does not disclose to its recruits the existence of huge farms in Brazil, the Caribbean and southern Africa, the clothing factories in China and Morocco, or the profitable second-hand clothes chain.

Far from using its money to help the poor, Tvind has been accused of moving vast sums into offshore tax havens and numbered Swiss bank accounts. Wherever it goes, Tvind appears to create an impenetrable network of companies, leading to allegations that donations, grants and public money have been set aside for its own benefit. In 1990, a government-sponsored report in Sweden found that only 2 per cent of the money raised by Tvind left the organisation.

Worse still, Tvind has been accused by many former supporters of putting young people under unreasonable psychological pressure. Students have described meetings that last hours or even days, at which dissent is ruthlessly crushed. In Denmark, scores of former Teachers' Group members have received psychological counselling after they have allegedly been stripped of their personality.

Kurt Simonsen, a Dane who worked for Tvind in the 1970s but has since left, says: "It was brainwashing, because it was impossible to disagree. Meetings went on until everyone agreed." Similar pressure is still in use. Erik Olsen, a psychiatrist who has joined the Danish anti-Tvind movement, says he has seen many ex-students suffering serious mental strain. "They have been brainwashed and become single-minded in a very dubious way and at a young age. In some cases, it takes them years to recover."

Unfortunately these are not allegations that can be put to the one man who could answer them - Mogens Amdi Petersen. In 1979, he went underground and he has not been seen by anyone outside the organisation for 20 years. The latest rumours place him in Zimbabwe, where he is said to own a fleet of Mercedes and to enjoy a private zoo.

One man who does know Tvind from the inside is Steen Thomsen. Thomsen, 50, is a Dane who enrolled at the Necessary Teacher Training College in 1971.

He rose to become headmaster of the CICD's predecessor school, Winestead Hall, in the same red-brick building outside Hull. But in 1998, after the school was controversially closed, Thomsen abruptly resigned from Tvind and began to blow the whistle. He describes an organisation riddled with paranoia, beset by twisted values, ruled by Petersen with a mixture of charisma, bullying and psychological manipulation - a phenomenon experts call a top-down cult.

Today, Thomsen lives in western Denmark and has returned to teaching in an ordinary school. He reflects on 26 "lost" years. "Tvind is a cult," he says. "But I was not aware of this until I left. Leaving it was the hardest thing I ever did. For the first week, I stayed at home with the curtains drawn. I was convinced they were going to come and get me."

Thomsen's story is a sad catalogue of tarnished ideals. In 1971, he says, Tvind was undoubtedly a brave social experiment that he was glad to be part of. In 1977, Petersen invited him to the Teachers' Group. "I was flattered. I said yes straight away." For the next 26 years, Thomsen worked for practically nothing, passing his Danish teacher's salary to a trust, Faelleseje. Over the years, he estimates, he gave Pounds 300,000 to Tvind.

Thomsen says Petersen's behaviour became ever more fanatical. He wanted more than money - he demanded blind loyalty. In about 1978, Petersen instructed his followers to extinguish their pasts: "We were told to go back to where we had our childhood things and take all those things, especially letters and photographs of our family, and burn them," Thomsen says.

"Whatever Petersen said, you did. He was very charismatic. Tvind became my life - it was my family, it took up every moment I had. We were not allowed to read newspapers. We blindly took orders. One day, Petersen gathered about 200 members of the Teachers' Group into a windowless room in a farm in southern Denmark. There was supposed to have been a threat to kill him. He asked if there was anyone present who would not, if necessary, be prepared to kill the person sitting next to him. Only one person disagreed."

Thomsen claims Petersen's paranoia was such that Teachers' Group members were told to commit nothing to paper and always to use digital mobile phones to prevent outsiders discovering Tvind secrets. Now communication is largely by encrypted email.

Thomsen says the school he worked at, Winestead Hall, was little more than a "money machine", earning Tvind millions of pounds from British taxpayers. Now the College for International Cooperation and Development, Winestead was from 1989 to 1998 a private residential boarding school for disturbed adolescents.

The school charged local authorities for boarding and educating the children, who were deemed too disruptive even for council care. The money should have been reinvested in the school, but, Thomsen says, much of it was passed to Tvind through large sums of rent payable to a Channel Islands company that happened to be run by Tvind.

Eventually the authorities became suspicious. Although the full story of Winestead Hall has not been disclosed, in January 1998 it and a second school at Buxton, near Norwich, were closed by education and social services staff, the Charity Commission and a firm of auditors. A source at the Charity Commission admitted there had been evidence of "serious financial irregularities".

The same year, Tvind also lost control of its Humana chain of charity shops in England, after Charity Commission investigators suspected that money collected in the UK was not reaching aid projects in the third world. Tvind, however, will not lie down. Within months of being closed down, it began collecting old clothes in the Midlands, under a new name - Planet Aid UK.

Thomsen's account is supported by many other ex-members who have come forward with similar stories. Nick Moss, a former volunteer from Hull, claims he nearly died in Angola when Tvind project leaders refused to call a doctor to treat his malaria. "It's difficult to describe the methods they use to control people," he says.

Other volunteers describe being forced to take unacceptable risks hitchhiking or begging for accommodation with strangers in order to save money. In 1983, eight young teachers died when the vessel they were in sank in a storm off Dover - none of them was an experienced sailor and the vessel, the Activ, was unseaworthy.

Yet despite its colourful history, Tvind continues to recruit and to command the loyalty of hundreds, perhaps thousands of student volunteers.

Many simply ignore the evidence of personal stories, official reports and the warnings of cult information groups, saying only that their experience has been entirely positive. Their belief that Tvind is being unfairly persecuted by the authorities matches their concept of the group as radical, subversive and anti-establishment.

British universities and colleges, however, are becoming more alert. Hull University, where students from the nearby College for International Cooperation and Development were seen collecting money and distributing leaflets in December, says it will no longer allow them on the campus. "We always warn students to make thorough inquiries before committing themselves to any organisation," a spokesman said. At Liverpool University, the students union refused to distribute Tvind material after consulting a cult information helpline.

Both the Cult Information Centre and Family, Action, Information, Resource (Fair), Britain's top cult advisory groups, say they have long been concerned by Tvind in Britain and have been contacted by families worried by their children's involvement. "We would advise students to steer clear of Tvind and its associated organisations," says Ian Haworth of the CIC.

Yet the College for International Cooperation and Development continues to recruit, and its students, believing they are helping impoverished farmers in the third world, will undoubtedly continue to collect money in the streets and persuade university students to join.

For more information, visit:http://www.tvindalert. org.uk Michael Durham: durham_m@yahoo.com

DEMANDS OF THE CULT

* Meetings could last for hoursor days and dissent was ruthlessly crushed

* Scores of former Teachers'Group members have received psychological counselling

* Members were told to destroy letters and photographs of their families

* Members at one meeting were asked if they would be prepared to kill the person next to them ACTION BY Universities

* Hull University has banned Tvind members from its campus

* Liverpool University studentsunion has refused to distributeTvind material

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