A Danwatch Investigation

They say that their second-hand clothing shops fund development projects, but 87% of that revenue stays in Europe

All over Europe different organisations with the same name – Humana – collects secondhand clothes while promising, that the surplus of the earnings end up helping in the World’s poorest countries. But that surplus is much lower than it is in similar organisations

Jesper Nymark

Jesper Nymark

Research: Mads Berg

Redaktør: Jesper Hyhne | Executive Editor: Jesper Nymark | Vil du vide mere om denne undersøgelse, kan du kontakte Danwatch her

This article was developed with the support of the Money Trail Project.
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8. February 2021
The international aid organisation Humana People to People makes millions from the sale of second-hand clothing all over Europe, which consumers believe funds aid to developing countries. But only 13% of that money goes toward Humana’s charitable projects.

Danwatch read all the official financial reports for UFF in Denmark for the period 2015-2019. We did not have access to previous reports, since UFF never released these to the public.

Danwatch read the seventeen financial reports for European Humana organisations that were accessible either via public business registries or the organisations’ own websites.

There were many Humana organisations whose financial reports we could not access, because they have not been made public in the ways described above.

We presented our findings from these reports to UFF-Humana in Denmark and Humana People to People.  They would not consent to an interview, but agreed to answer questions via email. 

We asked Humana People to People to show us their financial reports.  They did not acknowledge our question, but replied instead in an email that Humana’s member organisations spend over DKK 600 million on development projects annually.

Endless racks of furs, jean jackets, and Converse sneakers in varying states of repair compete for customers’ attention in the “second-hand cathedral,” a four-storey used clothing store in the trendy Berlin neighbourhood of Friedrichshain.  According to its owner, Humana Secondhand und Vintage, it is Europe’s largest second-hand store. As you climb the spiral staircase leading to even more racks of shirts, dresses, scarves and petticoats, you can get a sense of what the money you’re spending goes toward.

Along the walls, one poster after another touts development projects in Africa conducted by the international aid organisation Humana People to People, founded by members of the Tvind Teachers Group: an agricultural project, a school project, the installation of solar panels, and happy, well-fed children in school uniforms eating maize porridge. Each poster is emblazoned with the round Humana People to People logo.

But if you dig under the piles of worn-out t-shirts to find out what lies behind the Humana logo, you will find a web of businesses, a holding company and organisations that transfer money and used clothing back and forth across Europe, none of which sends very much cash to the projects in the Global South that they want their brand to be associated with.

THE SUPPORT OF HUMANA

How much does each of the national Humana organisations donate to developing countries?

Only about 13 percent of the earnings made in Europe by Humana People to People finds its way to developing countries. Most of the European organisations send less than 10 percent while Norway, Finland and Lithuania give more than the average organisation.

“It’s completely absurd. It’s usually the reverse. Of course there has to be an effective administration, but the majority of the money should go toward projects in other parts of the world.”

Lene Bull Christiansen, associate professor at Roskilde University Tweet

 

In fact, only 13% of Humana’s European revenues find their way to development projects in the Southern Hemisphere.  The vast majority of its European organisations send less than 10%, while those in Norway, Finland and Lithuania help pull the average up.

According to financial records, the bulk of the money earned on the sale of used clothes goes to pay salaries in Europe. 

This is Danwatch’s conclusion after analysing the financial records of seventeen European Humana organisations, accessible either on the organisations’ own websites or in public business registries. It was not possible to find records for at least ten of the European organisations that are listed on Humana’s own international website.

 

The Humana Shop in Friedrichshain, Berlin is the biggest secondhand shop in the world.
Photo: Gunnar Klack, Wikimedia

What is Humana People to People?

Humana People to People was founded in Geneva, Switzerland in 1996 by a number of charitable organisations with links to the Tvind Teachers Group. The Group had begun collecting used clothing in the 1970s and early 1980s for projects in countries such as Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Humana People to People is an umbrella organisation for the approximately thirty Humana organisations around the world. Today, it is headquartered in Zimbabwe and has its main European office in Geneva.

According to the group’s own website, Humana People to People operates in forty-five countries.

 

A pattern that repeats itself

Historian and author Jes Fabricius Møller has followed Tvind and its associated organisations for more than twenty years, since he first wrote about the Teachers Group in the 1990s for Højskolebladet, the journal of the association of Danish folk high schools.  This led to his 1999 book På sejrens vej (On the Road to Victory), in which he recounts the history of Tvind and the Teachers Group.

Today he calls both Humana People to People and its Danish member organisation UFF “big business,” and notes that it was twenty years ago that he first began to write about how the money that went to UFF and Humana People to People was not being directed to development projects:

“In 1990, Sida (the humanitarian agency of the Swedish Foreign Ministry, ed.) investigated the earnings of the Swedish UFF and discovered that in fact only a very small percentage of its resources went to development aid.  So this is a pattern that repeats itself over and over,” he says.

Background

What is the Tvind Teachers Group?

In the 1970s, a group of young people led by Mogens Amdi Petersen founded a folk high school in the Danish tradition of continuing adult education. After a few years on the Danish island of Fanø, the group purchased a site near Ulfborg in Jutland called Tvind, where a local stream twists and turns – or tvinder, in Danish. Today the site hosts group homes for troubled youth and disabled adults as well as a private teachers’ college.

When Tvind is discussed in Denmark, it is usually the Teachers Group that is being referred to. It is not an organisation in the legal sense, but rather a group of people that have dedicated their lives to three principles: common time, common economy, and common distribution. 

Former members have explained that these principles mean that the Teachers Group has complete authority over the individual member: where they will work, when they must work, and how their money will be used.

According to Tvind’s own website, the Teachers Group is a “unique collection of people who have given each other their word to stick together through thick and thin.”  All have dedicated their lives to the work of the Teachers Group around the world for longer or shorter periods of time.

Five leading members of the Tvind Teachers Group are wanted by Interpol: Mogens Amdi Petersen, Sten Byrner, Marlene Gunst, Christie Pipps (née Kirsten Fuglsbjerg) and Kirsten Ambrosius Larsen.

“It’s completely absurd”

In all, the seventeen financial reports accessed by Danwatch show that the Humana organisations in Europe earn annual revenues of more than 800 million Danish kroner (DKK) from the collection, purchase and resale of used clothing. But the reports also show that Humana in Europe sends only about 13% of its income to charitable projects, or just under DKK 100 million. 

“It’s completely absurd. It’s usually the reverse. Of course there has to be an effective administration, but the majority of the money should go toward projects in other parts of the world,” says Lene Bull Christiansen, an associate professor at Roskilde University who has conducted research into what Danes believe happens to the money raised via Danmarks Indsamling (Denmark’s Collection), an annual televised appeal by the national broadcaster and twelve prominent NGOs supporting projects that address the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Thirteen percent is also significantly less than other organisations deploying similar fundraising models. For example, the Red Cross in Denmark is able to forward 35% of its earnings from the sale of used clothing to its charitable activities. But since the Red Cross also raises money in other ways, notably by soliciting donations from individuals, 89.6% of the organisation’s total income in Denmark is dedicated to its charitable work.

The Humana organisations’ financial reports also show that they buy and sell amongst each other, and that even though all the organisations use the same Humana People to People logo, some are straightforwardly for-profit enterprises, while others are non-profit.

This is not normal, according to Lene Bull Christiansen:

“I don’t claim to have encyclopaedic knowledge of every development organisation in Europe, and I can’t guarantee that there aren’t any like that, but as a rule, development organisations are non-profit. It’s in their DNA.”

Humana People to People’s Kleidersammlung collects the Germans' used clothes in containers such as this. The logo is the same as the one used by the recycling shops Humana Secondhand und Vintage, and by the development aid organisation, Humana Deutschland. Photo: A. Savin, Wikimedia Commons

What’s in a name?

The ‘second-hand cathedral’ in Berlin’s Friedrichshain is one of the many shops that display the Humana People to People logo, but it is first and foremost a business designed to make money.

As it happens, Germany is one of the countries in which Humana operates both non-profit and for-profit companies. Danwatch has identified four different Humana organisations in the country.

The first is Humana Secondhand und Vintage, the company that owns the ‘second-hand cathedral’ as well as 35 other used clothing stores spread out among the major German cities.

The second is Humana Kleidersammlung. This company, instead of selling used clothing directly to consumers, collects it and sells it on to other businesses. According to its 2016-2017 annual report, Humana Kleidersammlung sold 47.6% of its clothing to five sorting facilities in Eastern Europe and Turkey that are also a part of Humana People to People, and in the same period sold 30.6% to other sorting factories.  The remaining 21.8% was sorted by Humana Kleidersammlung itself.

The third organisation, Humana People to People Deutschland, is the smallest of the three. This is a non-profit organisation that receives money from the other two, and then donates the majority of this income to Humana’s development projects in the Global South. In addition to these, Humana owns a property company in Germany called Humana Real Estate.

All three second-hand arms of Humana in Germany claim on their websites or in their annual reports that they contribute money to development aid, but upon a closer examination of their annual reports, a murkier picture emerges.

In its 2016 annual report, Humana Kleidersammlung notes that of its DKK 62.7 million in revenues that year, it spent over DKK 2.1 million on development work.

“We are contributing to global justice through development aid and the recycling of clothing,” the company writes.

The clothing collection company’s annual report shows that Humana People to People Deutschland received DKK 300,000, while the international umbrella organisation Federation Humana People to People received DKK 1.8 million.

So when a German donor brings a bag of clothes to one of Humana’s collection points, believing that the money from the sale of the clothes will support aid to developing countries, in reality that money is just being shifted to another Humana organisation.

Humana under the magnifying glass

Several of Humana’s subsidiaries have attracted the attention of law enforcement and media organisations.

Retired Danish police superintendent Knud Haargaard was behind one such inquiry into Humana. He led an investigative team that was assembled in the city of Holstebro in the early 2000s to look into Tvind’s activities after former members of the Teachers Group gave media interviews accusing the Group of extensive misuse of funds. Haargaard has told Berlingske newspaper that after the first round of charges were brought, the prosecutor’s office ended up setting the Humana investigation aside, because it estimated that it would take 10 to 15 years to get to the bottom of it all.

According to UFF-Humana no one from Humana has been charged in regards to this investigation.

In 2002, Berlingske documented how UFF in Denmark sold the clothing it collected cheaply to Humana’s own sorting factories. The factories then resold the clothing at a significant markup and sent the profits to foundations in tax havens abroad.

Humana has also attracted attention in Portugal, where in 2016 it was in the crosshairs of television channel RTP because only 13% of the organisation’s revenues were being sent to developing countries.  Humana Portugal’s most recent financial report shows that in 2019, that share had fallen to 4.1%.

Finally, in 2016 and 2017, the American investigative media organisation Reveal exposed how Planet Aid, the American arm of Humana, received more than USD 133 million in American tax money.  According to Reveal, a large portion of the money seems to have been sent in circles within the Tvind system until it finally disappeared into the budget of the Teachers Group instead of helping Malawians.

“A lot of the funding … is not used to help the livelihood of poor Malawians,” Andrew Chalamanda, a former employee who sued the group for back pay, told Reveal at the time. “Fifty to sixty percent of the benefits of the Teachers Group are for the owners who are in Mexico.”

In a statement to Reveal, Planet Aid’s PR spokesman, Andrew Rice, wrote: “Planet Aid has a long and successful track record managing U.S. government projects in Africa. Government agencies continue contracting with Planet Aid precisely because they have seen the positive results in the field, and they have conducted extensive financial reviews of these programs”.

background

The Tvind Case

On April 25, 2001, police stormed eight central Tvind locations around Denmark, seizing tens of thousands of internal documents, computers, and other materials that could be used to investigate the organisation.

A criminal case was brought against eight leading members of Tvind in 2002. Mogens Amdi Petersen, Kirsten Ambrosius Larsen, Christie Pipps (née Kirsten Fuglsbjerg), Ruth Sejerøe Olsen, Marlene Gunst, Poul Jørgensen, Bodil Ross Sørensen and Steen Byrner were accused of embezzlement and tax evasion. Among other things, it was alleged that money from Tvind’s humanitarian foundation was used to purchase a luxury apartment in Florida.

All eight were acquitted in 2006 by the Ringkøbing district court, with the exception of Sten Byrner, who received a suspended sentence for embezzlement. All of the accused, with the exception of their spokesman Poul Jørgensen, immediately disappeared, while prosecutors appealed the decision to the high court.

In 2009, Poul Jørgensen was sentenced by the high court to two and half years in prison.

In 2013, the court ruled that Mogens Amdi Petersen and others be remanded to custody in absentia. His passport was revoked, and he is wanted by Interpol.

Humana’s response

We contacted the headquarters of Humana People to People in Zimbabwe to try to establish the scope of the concern’s global earnings, as well as how large a share goes to development aid.

We asked for permission to examine the organisation’s year-end financial report, and wanted to know why Humana People to People’s member organisations don’t contribute a greater percentage of their earnings to charity. Finally, we asked how much income Humana People to People’s projects in the Global South received from their European sister organisations.

The headquarters of Humana People to People answered that in 2019, the member organisations of Federation Humana People to People spent approximately DKK 600 million on education and development projects, reaching 12 million people around the world.

Danwatch again requested insight into the organisation’s annual report, and repeated its earlier questions, but received no further reply.

A Danwatch Investigation

The investigation divided into articles. You decide where to begin.

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