World charity group under investigation

Toronto organization denies ties to four indicted Danes

National Post (Canada)/April 27, 2002
By Brian Hutchinson

Ellen Shifrin just wanted to help people. A retired Toronto school teacher with a lifetime interest in overseas volunteer work, she thought she had found her dream assignment: a six-month stint in rural India, helping improve the lives of impoverished and disease-stricken villagers.

But there was a catch. The organization that offered the program -- something called the Institute for International Co-operation and Development (IICD) -- required Shifrin to spend US$5,300 on a five-month "training program" in southwestern Michigan. Only after she had completed the program would IICD send her to India. She agreed.

This, she now says, was a big mistake.

In August, 2000, Shifrin arrived in the small town of Dowagiac, Mich., population 6,500. She was assigned a room in an old college dormitory run by IICD, and was introduced to 15 other volunteers, most of whom were in their early twenties. Dubbed "development instructors," they had all paid the same US$5,300 training fee.

Shifrin was prepared for a rigorous program, including Hindi language instruction. Instead, the group spent almost half its time travelling by van across Michigan, sleeping in shelters and soliciting donations door-to-door in such places as Kalamazoo, Anne Arbor and Lansing. They also travelled to California, where they spent a month raising money in the streets of Santa Cruz.

"We each had to raise another US$6,000 to offset our expenses once we got to India," Shifrin says. "That was the goal we had to reach before we could go to India."

Living conditions were miserable, she recalls. In order to save money, IICD allowed its "volunteer" development instructors a daily food allowance of just US$3. "We had to buy the cheapest food available," Shifrin says. "I spent a lot of my time cooking for the others."

Some of the development instructors began to refer to their dormitory in Dowagiac as "the holding tank," and spent most of their time smoking, drinking and watching television.

Supervising them was a young Norwegian woman named Line Henriksen, who, Shifrin eventually learned, was a member of the Teachers Group, a controversial Danish organization that runs IICD and dozens of other humanitarian and fundraising organizations around the planet.

These organizations include Humana People to People, a far-reaching, international aid organization based in Zimbabwe.

They also include a Toronto-based charity called Planet Aid Canada, which collects used clothing from 200 yellow donation boxes placed across the Toronto area.

The clothing is then sorted and sold from Planet Aid's three retail stores in the city's downtown core.

Planet Aid's president is Carsten Hansen, a tall, Danish-born member of the Teachers Group. He says the charity funnels all of its surplus revenues to Humana and that it also helps recruit volunteers for its programs overseas.

"Humana does amazing things all over the world," Hansen told the National Post. "It's an excellent organization and it takes its role and responsibilities in the developing world very seriously. All of the development instructors are well-prepared ahead of time."

On the contrary, says Shifrin. "We weren't prepared for India at all. I've been there five times and I knew that we needed to be able to communicate in Hindi. But there was this incredible arrogance. Line [Henriksen] knew what was best, although she'd never even been to India."

In January, 2001, after raising the additional US$6,000, Shifrin arrived in India with several of her fellow trainees. They were assigned to a small village, where they were introduced to some local people recruited by the Teachers Group.

"We were all supposed to be working for Humana but Humana gave us no support, no resources, nothing," says Shifrin. "We were just kind of left there."

Shifrin spent one month in the village before being posted to Humana's office and residence in Jaipur, where she helped plan a conference on poverty.

In Jaipur, her living conditions improved dramatically. "It was extravagance," she says, "nothing that ordinary Indians would experience. We had someone to clean after us, and another person to cook for us."

But her frustration grew with each passing day. Shifrin became convinced Humana was a sham. "There was no accountability. There were doctored reports. One fellow wrote that we'd built all these latrines. It wasn't true. There was an incredible amount of inertia surrounding everything. I didn't see much being done for the Indian people."

In April, she heard the news that four high-ranking members of the Teachers Group had been charged with fraud. Danish police accused them of "misappropriating funds and donations earmarked for humanitarian purposes."

The four -- including Teachers Group founder Mogens Amdi Petersen -- were accused of embezzlement and tax fraud involving $35-million, money supposedly directed to several of the group's charitable organizations between 1987 and 2000.

Shifrin was appalled; incredibly, the news didn't faze her co-workers. A month later, she decided she'd had enough. She returned to Canada after only five months with Humana in India.

"When I got back, I wrote letters to newspapers in every city where I'd raised money. I apologized for collecting money for IICD and Humana, and I said that the money had basically been thrown away."

She also contacted Toronto Star columnist Michele Landsberg, whose husband, Stephen Lewis, is the United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. Shifrin thought Landsberg might be interested to hear a true tale of negligence in the development industry. "She told me to write down my story and send it to her," says Shifrin. "I did, but I never heard back from her."

No one seemed interested in her experience, so Shifrin decided to put it behind her. She turned to substitute teaching in Toronto and got on with her life, a little wiser, a little poorer.

And then everything changed.

Two months ago, on Feb. 17, Mogens Amdi Petersen, the Teachers Group's alleged mastermind, was arrested at the Los Angeles International Airport. He was, reportedly, attempting to travel to Zimbabwe, where Humana, the Teachers Group's key development and fundraising arm, is based.

Petersen, 63, is being held without bail in a Los Angeles area prison, awaiting an extradition hearing; Danish authorities are keen to have him return to Denmark to face fraud charges. He has hired Robert Shapiro as his defence lawyer who, seven years ago, successfully helped O.J. Simpson beat murder charges.

Petersen's arrest caused a sensation in Denmark, where the Teachers Group -- also known as Tvind -- has for years been synonymous with scandal and greed.

Established in the early 1970s by Petersen and several other teachers, the group offered free, alternative-style education to troubled Danish youths. Its methods -- which included taking students on long, unstructured trips around the world -- became popular, and the Teachers Group soon obtained large amounts of funding from governments in Denmark and other European countries. Approximately 50 schools were established across Europe. Teachers within the group were given room, board and a small amount of money; as much as 85% of their government-subsidized salaries were deposited into the group's main coffers.

In 1979, amid criticism the Teachers Group and its agencies were engaged in deceptive practices and mired in self-interest, Petersen vanished from Denmark. However, Danish investigators believed he continued to direct Tvind's activities from a remote location.

Last November, Danish reporters found Petersen living under an assumed name in a $10-million condominium on Fisher Island, one of Miami's wealthiest enclaves. In order to house his two Leonhand dogs comfortably, Petersen was reported to have bought a second condo in the same exclusive complex. He also kept two late-model Mercedes Benz SUVs on-hand.

How could Petersen afford such a luxurious lifestyle? According to documents released by Denmark's Public Prosecutor for Serious Economic Crime, the condos were purchased by a Tvind subsidiary, one of its many "holding companies placed in typical tax haven countries.... The police estimate that today the Tvind Group controls assets (cash, properties, etc.) amounting to several thousand million" Danish kroner, approximately $500-million in Canadian funds.

The Teachers Group has "expanded far beyond pure school activities," and now consists of "more than 100 companies and foundations," including Third World fruit plantations, shoe factories, sawmills, recycling companies and, of course, relief agencies such as Humana People to People and Planet Aid Canada.

But according to Planet Aid's Hansen, his charity has no ties to either Petersen or the three other Teachers Group honchos charged by Danish authorities with fraud.

"It is messy, and it's unfortunate, but it doesn't have anything to do with us," insists Hansen, sitting in a small meeting room inside Planet Aid's modest headquarters on Yonge Street, downtown Toronto.

"Nobody charged or arrested in that matter has anything to do with Planet Aid," he says.

Hansen, however, is himself a member of the Teachers Group, and a veteran Humana worker. He admits he has encountered Petersen on several "social occasions" since the Tvind founder went into hiding in 1979. He isn't bothered by accounts of Petersen's luxurious Fisher Island hideaway. "The guy must have made some money. So what? He's a very serious, hard-working person."

Improbably, Hansen adds that Planet Aid is "completely independent" from Humana, as well. "We are a federally registered Canadian charity," Mr. Hansen says. "The law says that we can't be directed by anyone outside of Canada." That, he says, "would be illegal."

And yet Hansen says he established Planet Aid five years ago with Humana's blessing. Last year, he says, Planet Aid donated all of its surplus revenues -- approximately $30,000 -- to Humana. (According to documents it filed with the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, Planet Aid had revenues of $1.7-million between 1998 and 2000, yet claims to have run an operating deficit in those years and therefore did not forward any surpluses to Humana). Hansen hopes to contribute $60,000 to Humana this year.

Planet Aid also helps in the effort to recruit Development Instructors for Humana. Its three Toronto stores are plastered with Humana posters and pamphlets challenging people to become involved in its overseas projects, and extolling the benefits of working in the developing world.

"It is a human obligation," reads one brochure. "Humana People to People is good at mobilizing people, organizing things on grass root level [sic], liberating the forces of the many, making things happen and getting plans off the ground. These and many more sides are brilliant and unique strengths of Humana People to People."

Nowhere is it mentioned what Humana does for the people it claims to serve, or how it spends its resources. "I suggest you contact Humana people in Zimbabwe" to find out, Hansen says.

He goes on to defend the fee Humana subsidiary IICD charges its Development Instructors for its five-week training and fundraising program. "It's not a lot of money for the living expenses and the travel involved," he says. "You have to have good in your heart and really want to make a difference. Unfortunately, there are always some people who will complain about anything."

That, says Maureen Ross-Smith, is "absolute bullshit."

A retired corrections officer from Brampton, she hooked up with Planet Aid last year, pulling several volunteer shifts in its Yonge St. retail outlet before sending IICD its fee and moving into its dormitory in Dowagiac, Mich. "I was about to retire, and I'd been looking to volunteer with something. I went to an IICD meeting in Toronto and the next thing I knew, I was going to go to Guatemala and help street women, or so I thought. I thought the program sounded great."

What she found was something rather less. "All we did was cook, clean, and plan our fundraising," she says. "There was no development training. We were offered three Spanish classes in the seven weeks that I was there."

Her worst experience, she says, came on a fundraising expedition to St. Paul, Minn. "A group of us were sent off in this really unsafe van. It was dangerous. The transmission kept slipping and I was terrified. Then we stayed for two-and-a-half weeks in the basement of someone's house in St. Paul. There were 10 of us sleeping on the floor of this small room. The carpet was covered in cat pee. For dinner, we ate stale bagels that someone got from the bagel store."

Ross-Smith wanted to leave, but was persuaded to stay and go door-knocking. One day, she says, she raised $140, but quickly realized she'd have trouble collecting the extra US$6,000 required for her volunteer work in Guatemala.

"I couldn't bring myself to beg any longer for this disgusting outfit" she says. "So they asked me to go around to universities and colleges and put up Humana posters. I felt like a sneak, going into these places without permission and sticking these posters inside bathrooms. I hope no one saw them."

Last fall, she decided to return home after completing less than half of the training program. IICD promised to refund the balance of her fee, but she's still waiting.

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