Taking a look at Planet Aid's complex history

Group trying to distance itself from controversies

The Intelligencer Journal/July 27, 2007
By Larry Alexander

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania -- The appearance of the yellow metal boxes for the collection of used clothing and shoes, placed at spots in Lancaster County seemingly overnight, is almost as mysterious as the organization that put them there.

Planet Aid, a registered nonprofit company based in Massachusetts, has more than 8,000 such bins in 17 states. The clothing, shoes, toys and other items it collects are sold to secondhand brokers, said Debbie West, spokeswoman for the organization. The brokers resell the items in fertile secondhand markets in Africa, South and Central America and eastern Europe, and Planet Aid uses its proceeds to invest in charity projects overseas.

It sounds reasonable, but questions have dogged Planet Aid.

The group, according to numerous national and international media reports, is one of about 150 organizations spun off from a multinational group known collectively as Tvind.

Heading the organization is a Danish teacher named Mogens Amdi Pedersen who, in 1970, reportedly was dismissed from an academic position because of his long hair and, according to some, his radical ideas, according to The Boston Globe.

Pedersen was soon persuading young idealists to travel to Africa and Asia to assist the poor and help in anticolonial struggles, according to the Globe. On their return to Denmark, they pooled their resources to purchase a farm. In 1977, they became known as Tvind and established The International Humana People to People Movement, an umbrella organization headquartered in Zimbabwe.

Central to Humana was an inner circle known as the Teachers Group, whose members made a lifetime commitment and donated their salaries to a communal fund.

Over the years, the organization grew and numerous for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations spun off, including Planet Aid, according to the Globe. They were conduits to feed cash to Tvind but only small amounts of their proceeds — 23 percent for Planet Aid in 2005 — actually went directly to charities.

Tvind's net worth in 2005 was estimated at $350 million, according to the Portsmouth (N.H.) Herald.

In 2002, Pedersen and seven members of the Teachers Group were accused by the Danish government of fraud, according to the Copenhagen Post. Pedersen, living in a luxury condominium owned by Tvind in Miami, was picked up by the FBI in Los Angeles on an Interpol warrant and held for extradition.

The long trial held in Copenhagen, which ended last August, resulted in all of the defendants being acquitted "on a technicality," said British journalist Michael Durham, who has been tracking Tvind for 10 years.

"The Danish press went absolutely mad because these people had their hands in the till," Durham said Thursday.

The Danish government has appealed the ruling, Durham said, and the new trial "will start next month."

Meanwhile, Pedersen and all but one of the others have left Denmark.

West denies her group has any link to Tvind, although she said some of Planet Aid's workers are members of the Teachers Group.

"We are a separate company altogether," she said Thursday.

Durham disagrees.

"Ever since members of the Teachers Group were charged with fraud, Planet Aid and all the other organizations categorically deny that they are part of it," Durham said. "But that's rubbish."

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