Keith David Watenpaugh, professor of history at UC-Davis, will deliver annual peace studies lecture on October 18, 2021

ASU lecture to preview forthcoming book 'The White Savior and the Waif'

In recent years, respected humanitarian organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, Feed the Children and Oxfam have come under pressure for being part of what is described as the “White Savior Industrial Complex.” Critics are forcing the organizations to confront the historical legacies of empire and colonialism in their day-to-day operations, media campaigns and collaborations with countries that have poor human rights records.

Historian and author Keith David Watenpaugh will address this phenomenon during a free public lecture at 4 p.m. Monday, Oct. 18, in West Hall room 135 on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus. Watenpaugh’s lecture will preview his forthcoming book, “The White Savior and the Waif: Listening to Humanitarianism’s Unheard.”

“The humanitarian industry has remained largely unchanged and unexamined during the last century,” Watenpaugh said. “What is different now is that the voices of those facing abuse and discrimination can more easily be raised through social and traditional media, the arts and literature. Equally, those voices have become difficult to silence.” 

Watenpaugh argues that systematically recovering the voices of refugees, rape victims and genocide survivors must be a fundamental feature of efforts to create a more humane and effective humanitarianism. In his talk, he will draw from historical episodes, including the Armenian genocide and the Syrian civil war, to ask how the tools of the humanities — history, storytelling and memoir — can surface these voices. 

“Humanitarianism has and always has had a listening problem,” said Watenpaugh, professor and founding director of human rights studies at the University of California, Davis. 

Watenpaugh will be delivering the annual Hardt-Nickachos Lecture in Peace Studies, offered through the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict. The lecture brings to campus thought leaders and scholars who specialize in peace issues with national or international import, and who have had a significant impact in their community or career field. 

Watenpaugh is a leading American scholar of the contemporary Middle East. He is actively engaged in the study of current historical events, particularly international and civil wars in the Middle East that are devastating human life and hope in the region. 

Since 2013, Watenpaugh has directed an international multi-disciplinary research project to assist refugee university students and scholars fleeing the war in Syria. He earned the Institute of International Education Centennial Medal for those efforts. 

He also is the author of the 2015 book “Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism.” The book has won multiple awards and is taught widely in American and international universities.

“Keith Watenpaugh’s research focusing on marginalized refugees is prescient and extremely important,” said Yasmin Saikia, the Hardt-Nickachos Chair in Peace Studies. “It offers us the possibility of thinking about inclusive humanity, which we believe is critical for furthering our work on ‘people’s peace.’”

“People’s peace” is an umbrella concept for the center’s focus on developing a humanities perspective on peace as a lived value and everyday ethic. This lecture is part of efforts to highlight ways that people make and live in peace with others, as well as the challenges they face in sustaining peace.

“Through the Hardt-Nickachos Lecture, we want to expose ASU students and faculty to transdisciplinary methods of studying peace,” Saikia said. “We also hope to inspire the public audience to become actively involved in peace work and seek solutions to end violent conflicts.”

This year’s lecture is part of ASU Humanities Week, a universitywide initiative highlighting the ways in which people explore the human adventure across time, culture and place. Past speakers in the Hardt-Nickachos Lecture series have included novelist and political essayist Pankaj Mishra, genocide scholar Selma Leydesdorff and theologian Stanley Hauerwas.

For more information or to register for the lecture, visit ASU Events.

The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict is an interdisciplinary research unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that examines the role of religion as a driving force in human affairs.

Story by Barby Grant