Madonna: The Malawi Cover-up

The 117 acre plot stands abandoned after the school project failed
The abandoned 117 acre plot were the Academy for Girls school was supposed to be built. Credit: M.Banda

Revealed: The cost of the school was not $15 m, but $6m

By Mabvuto Banda

New information has emerged about how Madonna’s handlers covered-up how the Kabbalah International Centre used poor Malawian children as a fundraising tool, mismanaged their funds and shifted blame on the managers of the failed school project

Phillippe Van Den Bossche was Executive Director of Raising Malawi, Madonna’s charity and Dr Anjimile Oponyo was the head of the planned Academy for Girls. They both were  accused of malfeasance in a report done by Trevor Neilson’s Global Philanthropy Group

Trevor Neilson
Trevor Neilson

But as I found out, it was a cover up by Neilson designed to shift blame on helpless Malawians and distance Madonna and the Kabbalah Centre from the Malawi embarrassment.

Neilson is an accomplished PR consultant who has worked with political heavy weights  like former US President President Bill Clinton and many other rich and famous people like Bill Gates and Sir Richard Branson.

Madonna reportedly raised $18million for the Malawi school project and, in 2010, she laid the first brick at a ceremony attended by senior government leaders and traditional leaders from the area.

But, in 2011, Raising Malawi announced that it was stopping construction of the school. According to a Newsweek report from April 2011, $3.8million had been spent on the project, but only $850,000 had gone towards the work in Malawi. The rest was spent by the Kabbalah Centre’s office in LA.

Follow the Money

Records, shown to me in confidence by Raising Malawi staff,  show that only $8,659 of the $3.8 million Neilson claims was spent on the academy, was paid out in Malawi.

Morgan Tembo, one of the members of the local advisory board for the school, told me that from the $850,000 Neilson claims was spent specifically on the school, only a mere $8,659 was released for the project

“What I know and I have seen is that only $8,659 was sent to us three months [july] after the bricklaying ceremony and clearly there was no apparent plan to cover the costs of operating the school,” said Tembo, one of Malawi renowned accountants and finance managers. According to records I have reviewed, the ceremony [bricklaying] in 2009,  cost $106,250.

Tembo’s explanation was also corroborated by Ufulu Loga, another board member of the charity. He said that the board was deliberately kept in the dark when it came to money issues.

I could not independently verify what happened with the rest of the money although reports in US media reported that the lion’s share was spent by the Kabbalah Centre’s office in Los Angeles under Michael Berg, the Co-founder of Raising Malawi.

Madonna captured with her Malawian adopted kids when she visited Malawi
Madonna captured with her Malawian adopted kids when she visited Malawi

However, records at the IRS, the US tax collectors, show that in 2008 Raising Malawi fillings totalled a million dollars [$1,042,623]  in “unspecified operating and construction costs”— of the school.

Neilson could not explain the expenditures when Newsweek  quizzed him in 2011.

Interestingly, Madonna allowed Raising Malawi to be headquartered at the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles giving the centre’s director (Philip Berg) more say and control of funds raised in the name of the Malawi school project and country’s poor orphans.

She made several global headlines adopting two Malawian children within a space of two years, wrote and produced a documentary about Malawian orphans and hosted high profile fundraisers which raised millions.

The money for the school project and the one million orphans was raised through high profile fundraisers and is still being raised on the Raising Malawi website and yet the local board was not allowed absolutely no say in how the money was spent.

“We had no say in things concerning money,” said a former member of the local Raising Malawi board. “We were just figure heads and therefore we were not surprised when the she [Madonna] fired us.”

The Kabbalah centre, at the very least, should have been open and transparent and honest in their dealings.

Neilson admitted to Newsweek that the Kabbalah Centre kept its Malawi account open, receiving and spending money after Raising Malawi registered separately with the IRS.

A Neilson aide said the Centre “took in more revenue than was spent” on Malawi projects in 2006 and 2007 and that “those ‘profits’ remained” on its books, designated for Malawi use.

Neilson could not tell Newsweek how much in profit the centre kept for the past five years but said it is being used to settle the debt Raising Malawi owes the Kabbalah centre.

So the question is how did Raising Malawi come to owe the Kabbalah Centre when it was keeping millions for the charity raised since 2006?

The other question is why is it that the Centre did not transfer the funds when Raising Malawi ran deficits in 2009 and 2010?

And what about 2008, when the foundation had its best fundraising year, finishing with a half-million-dollar surplus, yet the centre listed a $1.8 million liability from Raising Malawi on its IRS filings?

How could there be a liability if it was the Centre that in fact owed Raising Malawi the millions it had collected over the prior two years?

When Newsweek asked the centre’s tax attorney Shane Hamilton how the Kabbalah Centre and Raising Malawi divided the money that was raised for Malawi, he replied: “I don’t know if they have a structure.”

Soon after these questions were raised about Raising Malawi and the Kabbalah Centre, Neilson moved to separate the two, replacing the Raising Malawi board of directors with a new board consisting of Madonna, her manager Guy Oseary, and her accountant Richard Feldstein.

The next move was designed to blame others for Madonna’s failures in Malawi.

The Blame Game

Neilson successfully diverted attention from Madonna and the Centre and pushed much of the blame on Raising Malawi academy director Dr Anjimile Oponyo, the sister of Malawi’s first female President,  and Philipe Van Den Bossche who was executive director of Raising Malawi Inc.

“Despite $3.8m having been spent by the previous management team, the project has not broken ground, there was no title to the land and there was, overall, a startling lack of accountability on the part of the management team in Malawi… and the management,” he said in his report.

The report accused Dr Oponyo of leading a freewheeling lifestyle which included a high salary, a car, housing, and a golf-club membership when all these were included in her contract by Madonna’s aides.

Victoria Keelan, then chairperson of Raising Malawi board in Malawi, declined to comment despite several attempts.

However, the actual expenditures that Neilson tried to pin Dr Oponyo were peanuts compared to what the Kabbalah Centre spent to finance its trips to the southern African nation for the bricklaying ceremony, pay for Madonna’s lodging for the whole year at the exclusive Kumbali Lodge in the capital – Lilongwe.

For staters the Malawi golf membership costs only $500 a year compared to the high flying golf clubs in the USA and other parts of the world.

The car that was bought for Dr Oponyo was a Japanese reconditioned 1996 Toyota — not fit for any executive in a country like Malawi where executives drive expensive SUVs and other brand new expensive cars.

One of the Raising Malawi board members told me that Dr Oponyo’s annual salary, of $96,000, was actually less than what she was paid from her previous positions at the World Bank and the United Nations.

Dr Oponyo declined to comment because of the confidentiality agreement she signed with  Madonna.

To complete the cover up, Neilson had to target Philippe Van Den Bossche, the executive director of Raising Malawi. Van Den Bossche was the boyfriend of Madonna’s ex-trainer.

He got the job through the Kabbalah centre, where he was the development director before Madonna hired him to run her charitable activities in Malawi.

“Philippe’s level of mismanagement and lack of oversight was extreme in both aspects of the project and the lack of success of the players on the ground is in large part a result of his inability to effectively manage project plans, people and finances,” Neilson said in the report

I failed to get Van Den Bossche’s side of the story because he is also gagged by the confidentiality agreement he signed with the pop star.

The lie

Unrelenting, Neilson still pushes two explanations for why the Raising Malawi school was not built: that there weren’t enough girls living near the school to attend it and that the Malawi government never transferred the title deed for the 117 acres plot that was grabbed from the families of Chinkhota Village, 15 kilometres outside Lilongwe — Malawi’s capital city.

On the first explanation, Madonna had said that she was building the elite academy to accommodate about 500 underprivileged girls from the country’s 28 districts. So clearly, Neilson’s explanation cannot justify the shutting down of the project.

The second explanation that the Malawi government didn’t transfer the title for the land is just another lie. 

The lease, which I have seen, was signed on January 4, 2006  by the land registrar in Malawi stating that the Raising Malawi academy “is now registered as the proprietor of the leasehold interest” in that property.

The other interesting twist to the saga is that the real cost of the school was not $15 million.

 Madonna had pegged the cost of her school at around $15 million when according to insiders including Markus Dochantschi, the architect who draw the school, say that the real cost of the school was only $6 million.

“…There was never a plan for Madonna to build a $15 million school, that is a story perpetuated by Madonnas people to the international media,  it was a $10 million school which was then reduced to a $6 million because Madonna said she had no money,” said one of the insiders.

Plem Construction, the local company contracted to build the school, also confirmed that the cost was not $15 million.

“The cost we knew is not the one which was put up in the papers…it was far less than that,” said one of the senior managers at Plem Construction who asked for anonymity.

Neilson says Raising Malawi will now focus on financing “proven interventions.” If Madonna is willing to throw her money and prodigious fundraising talents behind the effective programs that already exist, that would be the best news possible for Malawi.

What Madonna has done since abandoning the academy has been to build school blocks in partnership with BuildOn,  in already established rural primary schools. This is not surprising because it is a much cheaper option since most of the money was mismanaged by Kabbalah Centre.

“My original vision is now on a much bigger scale,” Madonna said in a statement after the school’s collapse. “I want to reach thousands, not hundreds, of girls. I want to do more and I want to do it better,” she said in a statement justifying why she closed the school.