Hi LessWrong,

Two years ago, when I travelled to Belize, I came up with an idea for a self-sufficient scalable program to address poverty. I saw how many people in Belize were unemployed or getting paid very low wages, but I also saw how skilled they were, a result of English being the national language and a mandatory education system. Many Belizeans have a secondary/high school education in Belize, and the vast majority have at least a primary school education and can speak English. I thought to myself, "it's too bad I can't teleport Belizeans to the United States, because in the U.S., they would automatically be able to earn many times more the minimum wage in Belize with their existing skills."

But I knew there was a way to do it: "virtual teleportation." My solution involves using computer and internet access in conjunction with training and support to connect the poor with high paying international work opportunities. My tests of virtual employment using Upwork and Amazon Mechanical Turk show that it is possible to earn at least twice the minimum wage in Belize, around $3 an hour, working with flexible hours. This solution is scalable because there is a consistent international demand for very low wage work (relatively speaking) from competent English speakers, and in other countries around the world like South Africa, many people matching that description can be found and lifted out of poverty. The solution could become self-sufficient because running a virtual employment enterprise or taking a cut of the earnings of members using virtual employment services (as bad as that sounds) can generate enough income to pay for the relatively low costs of monthly internet and the one-time costs of technology upgrades.

If you have any feedback, comments, suggestions, I would love to hear about it in the comments section. Feedback on my fundraising campaign at igg.me/at/bvep is also greatly appreciated.

If you are thinking about supporting the idea, my team and I need your help to make this possible. It may be difficult for us to reach our goal, but every contribution greatly increases the chances our fundraiser and our program will be successful, especially in the early stages. All donations are tax-deductible, and if you’d like, you can also opt-in for perks like flash drives and t-shirts. It only takes a moment to make a great difference: igg.me/at/bvep.

Thank you for reading!


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40 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:59 AM

I think it would be helpful to ask more people in Belize what they think. Too often things are driven by what donors think, not by what would be good for the people a project is ostensibly trying to help.

Also, perhaps run a small-scale pilot project, then learn from that.

Thank you for your suggestions. I have in fact surveyed people and organizations in Belize. The general consensus is that there are a lot of people who are unemployed or working for very low wages, and getting higher paying employment would improve their standard of living. You mentioned a small scale pilot, we have actually run many such pilots, which is how we found that it would be possible to help people earn around $3 USD an hour. We are currently working on remote testing of our program before actually sending staff to Belize.


There's definitely a market there - as you clearly are aware (from mentioning upwork) there's a booming market in these types of remote work arbitrage opportunities.

I'm curious what you expect your value to be over and above what these online freelance companies are already doing. Is your non-profit's goal essentially to be marketers for these companies, letting people in less advantaged countries know that these opportunities exist?

The next question would be - how well are these companies ALREADY attracting poverty stricken people. Every person I've hired from upwork, when I asked them how they got into it, specifically mentioned trying to alleviate their own poverty. From that perspective, your non-profit could be creating the illusion of progress - helping raise the people you work with in belize out of poverty, while simultaneously taking jobs from other, poverty stricken people in EG india.

From that perspective, your non-profit could be creating the illusion of progress - helping raise the people you work with in belize out of poverty, while simultaneously taking jobs from other, poverty stricken people in EG india.

The nature of wage markets means the jobs would tend to go to the worst-off people who can take the jobs, whose wage demands would be lowest, as they'd have the most to gain from a given wage (that is, they'd take the job for less money, because the money is more valuable to them). This isn't a bad thing, although it's usually presented as one, particularly by those whose wages would be undercut.

(This doesn't consider market barriers or interference, granted; for one example, a mountain village might have the most to gain, but be unable to offer competitive labor pricing owing to the cost of providing infrastructure.)

Belizeans would probably be competing with wealthier people for work because their high level of English mastery allows them to compete for more advanced positions. The websites I mentioned have many workers from more developed countries. For example, half of MTurk's users are from the United States.


I'll say that this hasn't been my experience using these sites... I usually get several high-rated applicant's from poorer countries.

I think I understand the point: hypothetically, this program would take work away from people more in need, possibly even making the world worse off because of that. But if I magically made half of the virtual workforce disappear, then the half of the people that were removed would be really poor and the other half would be twice as rich. But is that creating more good? No, because the richer half would not need the money as much as the poorer half. If I added more people who were earning less money before being added then I am creating a net good, and that's what I am trying to do. I don't think the impact of helping several dozen people (just at first!) get out of poverty is insignificant, and since the program could be expanded if our tests indicate it works effectively, I think it could be considered high impact it terms of the number of people it could help and how much it could change their lives.


You're assuming that there's more supply right now than there is demand. That's possible, but unlikely given that I usually get 8+ highly qualified applicants for every remote work job I post (and a bunch more unqualified).

If that was the case, adding more people would get more people out of poverty. However, in this case, where the supply of workers outstrips the demand, adding more workers will just be shifting who gets any particular job - poverty stricken person A, that you're not working with - or poverty stricken person B, that you are working with.

Edit: I feel like i'm being super critical of a highschool student taking action - not something I want to discouraging, especially online where the subcommunication just isn't there. I applaud you taking action and Ill be interested to see what you create - I think I've said my reservations and hopefully you can address them.

My experience on Upwork is actually the same as yours! In our tests of the platform, it appears to be very difficult to find jobs due to the intense competition. I was unpleasantly surprised at first when I saw how difficult it was to earn money on Upwork as a new user. However, that was the whole point of the initial tests we did, so we expanded and have still been expanding the program to encompass other forms of virtual work that pay reliably and still have room to grow. Upwork will be a minor or non-existent part of our program.

If my program was just on Upwork, then I would be inclined to side with your analysis. Thankfully, it's not.

While it is not bad for the system as a whole it can seem so for the previously isolated part of the market when considered separately. If you care 0 about foreigners that you don't interact with you might not notice their blight so starting to notice and then alleviate that isn't so conforting if you lose on a measure you have been caring all the time.


Yes, exactly. The point of my comment being, that to the extent that the current freelance websites represent this theoretical perfect market, Brendon_Wong's idea will only be a feel good idea, while not actually creating any change.

However, if he can identify market inefficiencies (such as highly skilled, foreign workers not being hired due to asymmetric information, or the poorest workers not knowing about these opportunities), or as you pointed out, remove market barriers, he can actually make the natural market forces more efficient, and do some good.

Ultimately, the gains from these types of interventions are probably relatively small - he'd have to put very little resources in them and be extremely efficient to do a net good.

Well the total pool of work available for everyone is imperceptibly decreased in the short run, not aversely affecting anyone to any significant degree, while giving more of the poor who really need the money work opportunities... Is employing several dozen more people a small net good? I guess it's a matter of opinion.

Many people in developing countries do not have access to the technology needed to participate in virtual employment, so we will provide computer and internet access. We will be doing marketing in a way, yes, although it is guidance and training as well. In the future, we will move on from guiding people through using third party systems to directly selling virtual employment services, which should be much more profitable.

Why do you want to do this as a nonprofit instead of a for profit company?

Thanks for your question! This particular project is charitable in nature and would probably require funding to get off the ground and expand more rapidly. Since it is not expected to attract for-profit support, especially because it would probably not be a particularly profitable venture, most funding would probably come from people/organizations with non-profit motives. People/organizations with non-profit motives generally only donate to nonprofits, which have a better public image and are more trusted to pursue altruistic goals like donors expect. We can also offer tax-deductible donations to donors, and we do not get taxed on donations or income, which gives us a financial advantage for attracting more donations and for earning more income. The only benefits to starting a for-profit venture I can think of would be greater freedom in compensating supporters and in our operations, but since this project is not expected to be a huge profit maker and has charitable intentions, I did not choose the for-profit path, although of course I could consider it in more detail.

I agree with ChristianKl. you said:

it is not expected to attract for-profit support, especially because it would probably not be a particularly profitable venture.

why won't it be profitable? Can't you make it profitable? There is a market failure connecting people in places where minimum wage is too high to employ locals with employees willing to work for less. (in that its not easy to hire an international team)

I would be interested in getting involved in a for-profit version of this idea. (and was taking small steps towards researching similar ideas)

The venture could be profitable, yes. Would it generate massive amounts of income? That is also possible. I did not consider a for-profit version of the idea because the project itself was supposed to be charitable in nature. I am considering starting a for-profit branch of this idea, and would be open to hearing other people's ideas and motivations. Is your motivation and other's in getting involved in a for-profit implementation of this idea to earn money?

To elaborate more on profits, the initial implementation of this idea might not be incredibly profitable because we are relying on third party virtual employment services like the aforementioned upwork.com to ensure the initial implementation (this summer!) would be a success and members would be able to find guaranteed work. Directly contracting with people and organizations wanting virtual workers is expected to be a lot more profitable.

To frame it from the "capitalist virtues" perspective...

If you squint a bit, your version sounds a lot like "we're going to create a lot of value for a lot of people, in a way that is neatly measured in dollars, and therefore we can't possibly make a for-profit company." That is... really weird, from where I sit.

Alternate perspective: if you're creating a lot of value for a lot of people, but you can't extract any of it to compensate yourself for the infrastructure you build and the risks you take building it, are you actually really sure you're creating as much value as you thought you were?

The way I see it, making the project a nonprofit allows it to better compete with for-profit companies because of tax-advantages. It can also get donations. A for-profit corporation has the advantage of attracting investments from people hoping to make a profit, but I am quite sure that I would not be able to attract large sums of investment capital. That pretty much gives starting this program as a nonprofit the only logical choice.

Regarding your point about re-compensation, I don't think I cannot extract the value, it will just be difficult to pay myself an extraordinarily large sum of money all at once, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. If that ever did become a reality, then hypothetically I could create a for-profit branch of the organization that could partner up with the nonprofit branch in managing core revenue generating operations, thus allowing me to siphon income out of the nonprofit.



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I did not consider a for-profit version of the idea because the project itself was supposed to be charitable in nature.

That's a mistake.

On of the core ideas of effective altruism is to focus on effective structures instead of focusing on signaling that one is charitable.

I'm having trouble seeing how a for-profit corporation would create more good and be a more effective structure in this case. A non-profit organization can operate without income tax and attract donations which can be tax-deductible to donors. A for-profit organization could get investment capital, but I think it's highly unlikely I would be able to find any interested investors, and it otherwise performs worse compared to a non-profit with the same business model.

You are likely underrating the difficulty of raising charitable funds.

If the business model doesn't work for a for-profit it's unlikely from an outside view to think that you create much value in a nonprofit structure.


Charitability and profitability are not opposites. Perhaps you interpret for-profit as "grab as much as you can" but it does not necessarily have to be so. You can keep 51% ownership to yourself and take 0 pay as a compensation for your work and reinvest all the profits into the organization, making it effectively non-profit, while the 49% shareholders will make their gains through share prices going up if the organization is expanding based on the hope that at some future day you will pay them dividends.

Repeating MattG's question: What do you expect to do that MTurk and the others don't already do? Why is your project an improvement on what already exists?

MTurk employs a lot of people in developed countries. I have read they are starting to reject Indian based workers because of poor work quality. I can find employment for people who can provide a similarly high standard of work relative to workers in more developed countries, but who need the income more. Member participants would otherwise have had difficulties joining, say, MTurk because of a lack of computers, internet access, proper guidance, training... I don't think there are any companies helping freelancers find work because it's not very profitable, and yet there is a great need to reach people who are not working to their potential.

You haven't told us a plan, all you've provided is a daydream. Explain how you plan to use the $1500 dollars and why you think it will be self-sustaining. Explain what you intend to buy, where you intend to place the goods, how you intend to get people to use the goods, how you expect expansions to be funded, how much of your own time you expect to spend, whether or not you need other volunteers for labor and how you expect to get them, and whether or not you'll need more funds later on.

You're asking for donations without being specific. I can only guess that you're either ignorant or dishonest.

Now now; he could just be distracted. (as in - has not replied yet)

I did not throw every detail into the video and fundraiser/my post in LessWrong, that is correct... I do think I described the jist of it. I explicitly stated that funds will go towards providing computer and internet access, training given by staff, and opportunities that staff have to find. As implied, expenses will go towards computer acquisition, internet, and helping staff implement various facets of the project. I could have explained each and every detail, but it would be too long for the target audience to read. The campaign is not noticeably more vague than other related Indiegogo fundraisers I have seen.

I especially do not think dishonesty should be assumed. It's just common sense, but to try and put it in words, the effort put into the campaign and video, the numerous people involved, the fact that I'm a high school student putting my reputation on the line, the fact that we are a "verified nonprofit" shown by Indiegogo after confirming our 501(c)(3) status... It would be a very unlikely and elaborate scam, especially for the very low amount of money that this is likely to earn.

For the record, this project is operating under close scrutiny by the faculty sponsor mentioned in the video, by the nonprofit sponsor we have mentioned in the bio of Silicon Rainforest, by our adult volunteers, by our business partners, etc. If I wanted to do this as a scam, I would try to sell miraculously affordable virtual employment services, take the money, and run ;)

I explicitly stated that funds will go towards providing computer and internet access, training given by staff, and opportunities that staff have to find.

How much money to you think you are going to pay per computer? How many people do you think you will get working with the money that you raise?

Look into virtual assistants if you are not already familiar with this market.

Thank you, that is one of the markets we are looking to branch out to.

You might end up driving the situation of the poor in the target rich country even worse. This migth or might not be offset by the increase of the poor country workers.

The skill of the Belize workers is mostly due to the public spending on schools there. Make sure the benefit it provides in the target rich state gives the appropriate monetary encouragement to continue doing that. if the skill of the Belizeans isn't used for the benefit of belizeans they might see less value in improving their education.

The state benefits from dollars flowing into Belize. Foreign currency is generally not a bad thing for developing nations.

Has this been tried before elsewhere? If not, why not? If yes, what were the results?

There is definitely no prominent implementation of this concept and its related variations. Many nonprofits offer job training and give people computer and internet access, but starting what is essentially a virtual employment company to help people is not something I have heard about before, hence this program. It is possible that this idea was not implemented before in a charitable way because people start virtual employment companies for for-profit purposes, and those companies are very successful. As to the idea of connecting the impoverished with virtual employment services, it is possible many people are not aware of virtual employment services and thus have not implemented the idea.


Could you define "in a charitable way?"

It seems like most of the for-profit companies in this space are doing what you want, by distributing wealth from people to whom it has lower marginal value, to people for whom it has higher marginal value. You seem to think that something being "for-profit" or "non-profit" makes a difference in terms of the good they do... but in this case, when you're simply trying to create an efficient market, they end up trying to do the exact same thing.

'In a charitable way" meaning good for the people. Just because there are for-profit companies out there doing this doesn't mean they are doing what is best for the people, they are distributing wealth, but also keeping a lot of it for themselves. A charitable venture would give most of the profits to the people involved, and this project also involves providing many things to people like internet and computer access, training, opportunities, something a lot of freelancers have to acquire for themselves in developing countries. It is very difficult for a would-be-freelancer to find access to all of the technology, one-on-one help, etc, hence the value of this project. While there are virtual employment companies, there are no companies helping freelancers get started, which is unique and fills a need.

One important question is whether there used to be implementations of this concept, but for some reason they failed to gain traction. In the world where there is some unexpected pitfall to this plan, you would expect not to see any prominent implementations, but you might be able to find out what the pitfall is if you dig enough, and hopefully circumvent it.

Intuitively I would be quite surprised if no one has tried anything along these lines before, so understanding previous attempts and how they relate to yours seems like it would be quite valuable.

We are continuing our search for similar projects, thank you for your suggestion. I hope that we have not missed any pitfalls, but like Strangeattractor wrote, we are indeed doing tests of the concept in various stages of development, and this project is kind of a pilot in and of itself, so hopefully we can catch anything we might have missed.

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