Charity faces ongoing cult accusations

Copenhagen Post/December 1998

[Note: this report, otherwise possibly accurate, wrongly describes Tvind as a Christian organisation.]

Tvind, the organisation behind the UFF charity shops, has been making headlines recently with allegations concerning the exploitation of students in its schools just the latest in a series of accusations levelled at the Christian foundation.

Recent complaints levelled at Tvind, a Danish-based Christian movement have once again focussed public attention on the activities of the organisation. Called after the Jutland town of the same name, the organisation stands accused of exploiting its workers, ignoring visa restrictions and even indulging in cult-like activities, while at the same time exerting strong pressure to gain total commitment. Critics claim that only a small percentage of the money raised ends up benefiting the Third World poor, with much of the remainder supporting fat salaries for those at the top of what is claimed to be a profit-motivated organisation. Tvind began in Denmark in the early 1970s when the charismatic Mogens Amdi Petersen founded a string of "progressive" boarding schools, which specialised in taming troublesome children and emphasised a policy of aiding the Third World. These soon grew to around 40 Tvind schools worldwide, where idealistic young recruits were encouraged to spend their free time embracing the philosophy of redistributing wealth by collecting second-hand clothes and donating their free time by working for the school.

A report prepared for the Swedish government in 1992 found that only 2 percent of money raised by the organisation actually found its way to recipients in Third World countries.

Tvind - "Humana" in English-speaking countries - has become known to the public through its People to People Development Aid programme (known as UFF in Denmark). The project maintains community development projects in Third World countries manned by young recruits from Europe. According to Tvind, 12-15 percent of the clothing is actually sold in the group's shops in Europe, where advertising tells potential buyers that sales will benefit the overseas poor. Half of the clothing goes to Africa, where, in order to avoid creating an aid culture and to create jobs, most is sold rather than given away, with the proceeds being channelled into a variety of aid projects.

However, a report prepared for the Swedish government in 1992 found that only 2 percent of money raised by the organisation actually found its way to recipients in Third World countries, while almost 80 percent went towards the salaries of project leaders and to train "solidarity" workers. The report prompted a ban on government support for the organisation, and as a result public clothing collection boxes were banned in many cities. In 1993 the Belgian government advised local councils against the installation of the boxes, and the Dutch government has also ordered an investigation into Tvind's activities.

In a faxed reply to the criticism, UFF Chairman Klaus Hansen pointed out that the organisation has never tried to hide its business activities. "In order to help the very poorest people on earth, UFF contributes to both big and small improvements, both for now and in the future - idealistically, on humanitarian grounds, and in a business environment. No development can take place without finance and business knowhow. This is something that we, on this side of the world, understand and we must bring this understanding to those who need it."

The organisation has recently suffered negative publicity at home, not least after reports surfaced surrounding foreign students being forced to dig peat in the Danish countryside. The school responsible - The Nødvendlige Seminarian - stands accused of paying its students just DKK 100 per day, and is now being asked to explain its actions to the immigration authorities. General workers' union SiD has also launched an investigation into the pay level, which is much lower than the national minimum. In summer 1996 the government withdrew financial support to a number of Tvind schools after similar cases were brought to light.

Last month an international organisation was established in Copenhagen with the aim of monitoring and investigating the Tvind.

Also in the headlines has been the case of a foreign teacher who claims he was brought over by the organisation under false pretences. The Russian man claims he was forced to work illegally on a tourist visa without wages. The recent clutch of negative publicity has also led to the government aid organisation Danida pulling its support, claiming that the organisation is "secretive and undemocratic."

There have also been reports of pay-related strikes on fruit plantations owned by the organisation in the Caribbean, as well as profiteering and dubious business practices. In 1996 Poul Jørgensen, a former spokesman for the organisation, was found guilty of knowingly withholding key information from the company's accounts, and in June was refused leave to appeal. Controversy has also surrounded Tvind's development projects in Malaysia and French Polynesia, where the authorities there have been asked to investigate whether the projects actually exist.

Last month an international organisation was established in Copenhagen with the aim of monitoring and investigating the Tvind. The Foundation against Tvind claims that although the group portrays itself as a charitable organisation, it is actually a multinational conglomerate with many cult-like aspects. The counter-organisation has reported three of Tvind's schools to the police for, among other things, knowingly employing workers without valid work permits.

Some former members have gone public, speaking out vociferously against the organisation. One Norwegian woman, who wished to remain anonymous, commented: "You really enter Tvind after about two years of living and travelling with one of its schools. Then, as a teacher, you are expected to sign a so-called "lifetime" contract, in which you sign away all your time, property, and earnings to the organisation. The contract is valid until age 67. About 600 men and women live their lives like this." "We were told again and again that nothing less than a 100 percent commitment would do."

Speaking about the members' lifestyle, she continues: "It can be a harsh life. You can be ordered anywhere on the globe at any time. You can expect to be separated from others with whom you have made close friendships. Tvind teachers can work up to twenty hours per day, seven days a week, and all year around. They claim that the projects help the Third World, but they just help the leaders accumulate wealth."

"Some of my best friends became Tvind teachers, and soon cut off contact with their families. The organisation sent photocopied letters home telling them how the sun is shining and their children were happy."

Another Danish former member, who has since written a book documenting the organisation's activities, adds: "I had had enough of the Left's empty rhetoric. I joined because I wanted to do something concrete to fight for a better world. First as a pupil, then a teacher, I was with Tvind for 9 years in all before I escaped from a school in the USA. The leadership would not allow me to return home and be with my mother, who had breast cancer. We were told again and again that nothing less than a 100 percent commitment would do," said Britte Rasmussen.

Another critic has been former Minister of Education, Bertil Haarder, who commented: "I can testify that Tvind's tactics are to talk and talk, complain and harass, threaten again and again. They are clever and they are dangerous. They are a totalitarian Marxist organisation with an unholy motive."

Tvind claims that its schools do little more than educate students in a sound Christian tradition, and its fundraising activities provide valuable resources to those in need. However the series of accusations are building momentum in the organisation's founding country, and some people believe that it could only be a matter of time before further government censure is introduced.

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