From Riots to Aid: The Impact of the Social Lens

Nathan Kotylak - Water Polo All Star

Meet Nathan Kotylak. A few weeks ago Nathan was a rising star. He was the best water polo player in his school, he was training with the Canadian national water polo team, he earned a scholarship to one of Canada’s best universities, and he was on track to be one of Canada’s Olympic athletes in a few years time.

But that all changed in about the time it takes to make a tweet.

Nathan Kotylak - Lighting a Police Car on Fire

Nathan decided to do something stupid. In this case, he decided to take part in the violence that ensued during the recent Vancouver riots. If this was but a handful of years ago, Nathan could have slept soundly knowing his crimes were hidden amongst the crowd, confusion, and other culprits.

But we live in a connected society – one where there is little or no digital divide. In the case of the Vancouver riots, this meant that for every rioter there were at least 2 or 3 bystanders filming, photographer, tweeting, Facebook posting, and otherwise documenting and sharing images and details.

In no small part due to these socially connected lenses, Nathan Kotylak soon turned himself in. His attempts to salvage his reputation have somewhat been undermined by the ever growing deluge of images & footage showing him seemingly starting other fires, seemingly shooting fireworks in crowds, and seemingly sexually assaulting women.

While definitely not the only trouble-maker and not the only riot leader, Nathan Kotylak deserves all the hardships and broken dreams that are coming his way. But, in many respects, Nathan is merely the latest to feel the brunt of the on-coming storm that is the social lens.

Barring advances which limit our freedom to share information with each other, it is becoming increasingly easier to put a spotlight on thing we don’t like. It can be an employee acting as a whistleblower, a customer complaining, or a concerned citizen documenting a hooligan.

The interesting thing is that the next great frontier of the social lens won’t be the next riot, or the next whistle-blowing employee, or the the next complaining customer. The next target of the connected camera phone will come from the poor in the developing world – and what they have to say about NGOs.

In my travels in my charity work in Bangladesh, I've often been filmed by locals. None of these phones, however, are connected to the internet. What happens to NGOs when that changes?

I say this as an ethnic Bangladeshi. For decades, for as long as NGOs have existed, there have been complaints about the quality of aid delivered, complaints of the misconduct of aid workers, and complaints about the amount of corruption and inefficiency in the aid system.

As part of this project, I’ve demanded a lot from any NGO that I team up with. I’ve demanded the right to film NGO staff anytime they are in public, I’ve demanded the right to upload content without pre-approval, and I’ve demanded to be more involved than controlled and curated field visits.

I have teamed up with many NGOs but only one has been consistently been brave enough to say yes to these terms. That organization is Save the Children. In fact, in my last trip with them, I gave them additional headaches by randomly selecting villages to conduct impromptu interviews. The only lead time Save the Children had was the time it took to get the consent to film the families.

I interview a beneficiary of a Save the Children health worker program. Save the Children was only given 24 hours advanced notice after I selected one of 96 villages to go to. They were only told on the day of the trip which beneficiary I intended to interview and only given enough time to request permission to film from the family. Save the Children staff were also not informed what questions I would be asking. And, whenever possible, Save the Children staff stayed out of earshot of my interview. Despite these hoops, I couldn't find a single beneficiary who had a complaint.

Understandably, very few charities or NGOs have enough confidence in their work and/or enough trust in an outsider to agree to something like this. But this is a moot point. You can ban and bar all the free agents you want, but eventually villagers themselves will start filming, tweeting, posting, and sharing.

If charities and NGOs start making steps to be comfortable with being under the social lens, it will be easier to avoid a Nathan Kotylak moment. After all, Nathan may have done something wrong but jumping on him was also a catharsis for a frustrated public.

As an ethnic Bangladeshi, I assure you, that frustration pales in comparison to what many feel about NGOs.

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