Decolonizing Humanitarian Aid
Applying to physiotherapy school I cited one of my career goals as one day working with
forcibly displaced peoples, especially in refugee camps. As my Masters in Physiotherapy comes
to an end, this same goal of working with and helping marginalized peoples remains – but I have
learned so much about the harms we can perpetuate as outsiders to these situations. So when I
saw the McGill Summer Institute’s week-long course “Decolonizing Humanitarian Aid”, I knew
I had to take it. Here are some of the key take-aways that I had.
In any context, it is important to interrogate where information and guidelines are coming
from. Who defines evidence-based practice? Who defines what is good research? Who’s
definition of ethics are you using? Are these definitions applicable to everyone? In global health
contexts? It’s important to acknowledge that ‘West does not equal Best’.
Following this idea, it’s essential to work in partnership and bidirectionally with local
NGOs and individuals. Local communities need to be the center of conversations regarding
funding, allocation, and priorities. Furthermore, it’s important to recognize that they provide
invaluable perspective and knowledge about who you want to be helping. Communities should
be empowered to prioritize their needs, suggest local solutions, and be set up to become
autonomous when temporary humanitarian aid leaves. As outsiders we need to ensure we’re not
forcing our ideas and perspectives – but truly working together.
Thirdly, we must un-learn and re-learn. You may be an expert in your home country or a
specific field, but that can completely change when you enter new, global health and
humanitarian situations. It is crucial to trust the locals who understand the context as much as
you trust your own abilities. Additionally, don’t take criticism as a personal attack; think of
decolonizing humanitarianism as a systemic & structural problem – not individual failing. Before
entering these situations reflect on what influence you have, and how you can reduce the harm of
Moreover, humanitarian action needs to change from a reactionary approach to an
anticipatory approach. How can we prevent these situations of needing global aid from
occurring? How can we provide supportive aid to ensure things don’t get worse – or that
communities are prepared should the worst happen? We need to inspire people with power, at a
very human level, to think about these important and necessary changes.
The last sentiments I want to leave you with are three-fold:
Firstly, climate change cannot be ignored within humanitarian circles – it is the most
important conversation we can be having in global health at this time.
Secondly, the revolution is coming and is necessary. This will come from elders and
youth working together – do not underestimate or exclude the power of the youth.
Lastly, three actions to reflect on and employ – not just within humanitarian aid but in any
sphere of practice:
i. Emphasize solidarity & dignity
ii. Ensure your actions & intentions do not perpetuate coloniality
iii. Amplify & support community voices
To me these actions are something anyone can apply to their everyday life – within and outside
of professional practice. Everywhere there are marginalized communities, everywhere there are
the effects of colonialism, everywhere there are advocates speaking out on these issues that need
to be uplifted and heard. Regardless of place in the world, but especially as healthcare
professionals, we need our actions to align with our politics – and we need our politics to be
about helping those that need it the most, in the ways that they see fit, not us.
Going forward this course has certainly opened my eyes to many issues within global health and
humanitarian aid, but more importantly it’s showed me ways it can be improved. I still want to
work within these contexts one day, and now I feel equipped with strategies and resources to go
about this in the most inclusive and community-driven way possible. In all scopes of my
professional practice and personal life I aim to apply these concepts. I want to be an ally to my
local community, to those who have difficulty accessing healthcare, and those who are always
“falling through the cracks”. I want to lift up and encourage advocates, to give them platforms
when and where I am able. I want to build lasting relationships with my patients built on
solidarity and exploring what their vision of health and healing is, rather than imposing my own
ideas onto them. I believe we all have the power to make a difference in our communities, and
what I learned from this course resonated with and empowered this belief. I hope it does for you
By: Stephanie Molloy, McGill University, final year