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Exposing the ‘humanitarian imaginary’: OISE student Nisha Toomey addresses relief work on Indigenous Land

May 24, 2019

By Lisa Smith

Nisha Toomey
Photo of Nisha Toomey by Deanna del Vecchio, OISE Ph.D. candidate

Many perceive humanitarian relief efforts as being universally beneficial and driven by moral imperatives to mitigate suffering. OISE PhD candidate Nisha Toomey, however, challenges these and associated assumptions in a new interdisciplinary paper entitled, “Making Humanitarians on Indigenous Land: Relationalities and Othering in Settler Civilizing Projects.”

The paper, which she presented at the 2019 American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting in April, focuses on what she terms the “humanitarian imaginary” – an idealized version of aid work and international development that replicates colonial structures of power. For example, funding for aid work is often allocated to Western agencies that operate with disregard for existing structures of support in local communities. Aid work, then, serves to erase local histories. International and western humanitarian efforts also fail to alleviate human rights crises, she adds, because they fail to address the histories that brought them into being in the first place.

Toomey interweaves her own life experience as a first-generation woman of colour in Canada with a wide-ranging analysis of international humanitarian and development work. She shows how the history of humanitarianism has been constructed in service of white middle class imperialism, and argues that relief work is entwined with colonialism and divisions of ‘us’ versus ‘them.’

Toomey also draws on her fieldwork in Southern Myanmar, a place where the displacement of Indigenous communities remains largely unaddressed by humanitarian relief efforts. She asks whether such failures can be attributed to the unquestioning adoption of what she calls the “humanitarian imaginary”.

Although these failures are deeply engrained, Toomey gestures towards a future in which relief efforts are informed by critical voices: “What can happen when humanitarian programs begin to truly consider the desires of local grassroots social movements, and when humanitarian theory takes seriously the interventions of Black and Indigenous social thought?”


A Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Social Justice Education, Nisha is an educator, writer, and activist. Her research on the impact of “humanitarianism” in Southern Myanmar is informed by her work with migrants and refugees on the Thailand-Burma border between 2004-2012. She is managing editor of the journal Critical Ethnic Studies and a community organizer with No One Is Illegal Toronto. She is the author of articles in Critical Ethnic Studies, Upping the Anti, the Critical Questions in Education journal and more, with forthcoming work in the International Journal of Migration and Border Studies and the book Taking Responsibilities for Land and Reconciliation, edited by Ranjan Datta and Mel Sysing.