Staff who worked on U.S. foreign aid projects have filed a legal complaint against an African contractor, claiming they were forced to work thousands of hours without pay.

In interviews, the workers described a secret behind the unpaid hours at the contractor, Development Aid from People to People in Malawi, or DAPP: A cult-like organization called the Teachers Group demanded that members attend indoctrination sessions, where they were admonished to pledge their money, time and free will to the orders of the collective.

“They say Teachers Group is your family, and that is the first family I should observe and be together with all my life,” said Andrew Chalamanda, one of the plaintiffs in a complaint filed with Malawi’s Industrial Relations Court.

Chalamanda worked on farm relief and other programs as an employee of DAPP Malawi for six years. He says he is owed 162 days of back pay.

The Teachers Group was founded by Mogens Amdi Petersen in the 1970s in Denmark. It later expanded into Africa and the United States, setting up DAPP and a U.S. affiliate charity, Planet Aid, according to Danish police documents. The network was part of what prosecutors call a global charities fraud scheme. Its alleged leaders, including Petersen, now are wanted by Interpol and were last seen hiding in Mexico.

The DAPP employees behind the legal complaint described U.S.-funded aid projects that were starved of resources and workers whose lives were controlled 365 days a year.

For its investigation published in 2016, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting visited U.S. Department of Agriculture-supported farm sites in southern and central Malawi that Planet Aid had cited as prime examples of successes. Farmers said they had not received the livestock, water pumps, fertilizer, seedlings and other benefits that had been reported to the USDA. Reveal also obtained documents indicating that grant money meant for DAPP projects was routed to organizations outside Malawi controlled by Teachers Group members.

Workers suing for back pay also bolster previous allegations of an illicit scheme to misuse foreign aid funds.

“A lot of the funding … is not used to help the livelihood of poor Malawians. Fifty to 60 percent of the benefits of the Teachers Group are for the owners who are in Mexico,” said Chalamanda, who was among several Malawians who said DAPP took pains to stage foreign aid projects for visiting funders.

Chalamanda’s descriptions echo a 2013 USDA site inspector’s report, which said DAPP projects looked “highly staged.” In 2015, Reveal met a former USDA project manager in Malawi, who detailed how he mocked up farm projects to impress donors.

“It is painful because I have been used; I have been one of the people who have been used to fulfill somebody’s needs to access funds through the organization. I have been the implementer,” Chalamanda said. “They just wanted to use me to stand there so that the owners of the funds would come, and they would see that we were on the ground doing one, two, three things. So I feel bad.”

Kambani Kufandiko, a plaintiff who worked on USDA-funded DAPP projects between 2008 and 2012, said he accumulated 138 unpaid leave days. He said he also oversaw projects that did not benefit from U.S. funds in the way they were supposed to.

“The United States people, I think they should know the Teachers Group has used their money in a way that was not the intended purpose, where they want to help the community, they want to help poor farmers, they want to help Africans. It’s not like that,” Kufandiko said. “They’re helping somebody who is in Mexico building mansions.”

Chalamanda and other plaintiffs said DAPP is controlled by the Teachers Group, a fact borne out by workers’ forced allegiance to the organization’s principle of “common time,” meaning every minute of a member’s activities is dictated by the group.

Weekends and holidays that other Malawian workers might have spent at home with family instead were spent with co-workers and bosses at supposed training sessions.

These meetings actually were Teachers Group indoctrination marathons “used to brainwash the people’s minds,” said Yona Banda, who worked as a manager on USDA farming projects as a DAPP employee. “People are afraid of what will happen tomorrow because they don’t think they can do anything without the Teachers Group. Teachers Group is the mother of DAPP, and workers in DAPP fear that they will suffer if they go out.”

The British government, UNICEF and UNESCO have cut funds to DAPP Malawi since Reveal reported in 2016 that aid programs there were controlled by the Teachers Group.

Planet Aid sued Reveal and two of its reporters in August 2016, alleging a conspiracy to interfere with business relationships. Reveal is contesting the lawsuit and believes it is without merit.

The USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, over more than a decade, has allocated more than $133 million for programs run by DAPP and its Mozambique affiliate. The funds were routed through the Teachers Group-linked U.S. charity Planet Aid, which used DAPP as a subcontractor. But despite probes launched recently by the U.S. Department of Justice and USDA inspector general, the USDA has not reported severing ties.

In the complaint, 22 employees say DAPP owes them more than 3,400 days’ worth of back pay. DAPP, in a response filed with the Industrial Relations Court of Malawi, said the charity does not owe back wages because the workers did not submit leave forms and thus forfeited unused days off. A court spokesman told Reveal that the case is scheduled for September.

Plaintiffs, however, told Reveal that they were not instructed to file leave forms to take time off for holidays and weekends. Instead, DAPP staff say they were instructed in Petersen’s “common time” doctrine.

“Common time demands you to be with members 24 hours per day, 365 days per year,” Chalamanda said.

Petersen set up the Teachers Group in 1970s Denmark, eventually running a government-funded alternative school system. Newspaper reports there described how Petersen’s growing organization controlled many aspects of followers’ lives, determining who they should marry, whether they could have children and where they could live. He told followers that they were on the vanguard of a coming world socialist revolution, which they would achieve by adhering to common time and “common economy,” which meant money they earned went into secret Teachers Group accounts, as previously reported by Reveal.

In 2001, Danish fraud investigators raided the school network’s offices and alleged that Petersen oversaw a global fraud and money-laundering operation. It was disguised behind a network of charities that included DAPP and Planet Aid, according to prosecutors’ documents. Acquitted of embezzlement and tax evasion in a regional Danish court in 2006, Petersen and some of his associates quickly left the country. Prosecutors refiled charges in a higher court, and in 2013, Interpol issued a bulletin for their arrest.

On June 23, 2016, Danish television channel DR3 videotaped Petersen, then 77, walking on the Mexican Baja California coast toward an elaborate polished stone-and-glass compound that serves as a Teachers Group headquarters, according to former DAPP employees who have been to the compound.

Chalamanda recalled the humiliation of years succumbing to the Teachers Group’s control to keep his job. He described a meeting during which members were compelled to make an annual pledge to recommit their lives to the Teachers Group. He said one DAPP worker did not show up to the meeting because she was sick and had been admitted to a hospital. So other members went to fetch her.

“I even said in the meeting, ‘It is not fair to drag somebody from the hospital just to come and agree to this,’ ” Chalamanda said. “They replied that it’s Teachers Group culture, it’s what they believe in. If you’re together, it will work perfectly.”


Kandani Ngwira contributed to this story from Malawi. It was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Matt Smith can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @SFMattSmith.

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Matt Smith is a reporter for Reveal, covering religion. Smith's two-decade career in journalism began at The Sacramento Union in California. He went on to positions at newspapers in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Twin Falls, Idaho; Fairfield, California; and Newport News, Virginia. Between 1994 and 1997, Smith covered Latin America as a reporter in Dow Jones & Co.'s Mexico City bureau. For 14 years, he was a lead columnist at Village Voice Media in San Francisco. He came to Reveal from The Bay Citizen. Smith holds a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Before his career in journalism, Smith was a professional bicycle racer. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.