New Internationalist

Thunderbolts from the sewer

Issue 383

The notorious Tvind organization may not be a typical bingo. But, as Pranav Budhathoki reports, its wealth, bizarre history and grim persistence reveal how far - and how easily - things can go badly astray.

Windswept Winestead Hall, eight miles east of Hull in northern England. My 60 days’ engagement with the College for International Co-operation and Development (CICD) started with an unfussy payment of $2,800 into the private bank account of the Principal, Karen Barsoe. I got a warm welcome into ‘the family’. Self-styled ‘teacher’ Rolf Jacobson showed me around. The ‘students’ set the dinner table. Pete the school assistant tweaked his guitar and others sang along. The place was pleasant. I liked it.

The following morning we were clearing sewage, painting walls and oiling the Principal’s car. Six hours later, with Rolf to oversee us, our group of 12 students set off for Nottingham. It was a cold October evening. No-one knew where we would sleep. We ended up in a maisonette belonging to an acquaintance of one group member. I hunkered down in the cold outside to get my 40 winks on top of a stack of newspapers. Mozambican Carlos joined me. Others ended up in the garden shed. Rolf was nowhere to be seen.

Next morning the instructions for selling newspapers came loud and clear. Keep the institution’s profile low. Shun the authorities and intoxicated Big Issue magazine vendors. Fundraise at all times. Twelve hours of selling and $1,500 in cash later, we wrapped up. Rolf looked contented with a sack-load of coins and banknotes. An inquisitive Zambian named Charles murmured: ‘What do you do with the money?’ Rolf couldn’t explain.

Eventually, after I left, I discovered why not. CICD is tied umbilically to a global movement called Tvind. Its roots date back to the 1960s when some radical young teachers, who believed in Maoist ideology – among other things – set up a school system in Ulfborg, Denmark. They formed a sort of political cadre, pooling ideals, time and income. They took Denmark by storm, exploiting an educational system that let anyone with an ideology run a school.

The catchphrase was: ‘Do you want to go to India?’ Dozens joined up. With millions of dollars in pooled income from the members of the ‘Teachers Group’, an appetite for exploiting the volunteers’ goodwill and Danish Government money, they set out to conquer the world. An international charity named Humana People to People, and about a dozen volunteer-training schools, produced young labourers for murky projects in 50 countries under as many names.

Idealistic young recruits were asked to embrace the philosophy of redistributing wealth, donating their own to the schools. A Third World trip qualified any breathing greenhorn as a ‘teacher’. Within a few years the group had spread to Norway and England. In 1987 it crossed the Atlantic as the Institute for International Co-operation and Development, setting itself up in remote but plush Swiss Meadows in Massachusetts.

'Let's have projects with strongly formulated ideas that light up with their lightning and roar over the land with their thunder, emitting fire of words and melodies and spirally-infused spirits as the aural environment'1

Cash flew in from all directions: from hundreds of members of the élite Teachers Group; from the Danish Government; from a vibrant second-hand clothing business. Worn clothes were collected from all over Western Europe and, through a for-profit firm, U’s Again, they were sold in African markets at a chunky profit.

Gluttony grew. Tvind invested in banana plantations in South America. By 1996 it was running 24 of them – 8 in Ecuador alone, employing 2,000 on ‘slave’ wages and without any rights to unionize. In 1994 it bought – from the oil company Shell – an 88,000-hectare plantation in Jatobà, Brazil, for $9 million. Tvind became notorious for large-scale deforestation and the inhuman treatment of workers there.

Meanwhile, in Denmark a noose began to tighten around Tvind, and around its ‘leader’ Morgens Amdi Petersen in particular. To escape the clutches of Danish prosecutors, Tvind moved its headquarters to the idyllic Murgwi Estate in Zimbabwe. In the late 1970s – when it first arrived – Tvind had trained ZANUPF cadres and cultivated a robust friendship with Robert Mugabe. When he came to power, the favour was returned.

Amid allegations of tax fraud and embezzlement, the Danish authorities arrested four leading members of Tvind in a series of raids in 2001. Petersen fled to England. Finally, after 22 years of living underground in plush Miami apartments, Petersen was arrested in February 2002 by FBI agents while changing planes in Los Angeles. He hit back by hiring the celebrity lawyer Robert Shapiro, who defended OJ Simpson. Seven months and a million dollars in legal fees later he was dragged back to Denmark. The case is likely to run for years.

Tvind continues to trawl murky waters.

Pranav Budhathoki is a student of Peace and Conflict Studies at London Metropolitan University.

  1. From the Tvind Charter

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