Interview with Professor Helen Ware

Malagasy school children sitting on desks in a basic room with rough plaster on the walls.


Just because someone is following a non-Western logic that does not make them wrong, just different.

Professor Helen Ware
Peace Studies, Faculty of Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences and Education
Professor Ware has been an historian, a sociologist, a demographer, a human rights advocate, a femocrat, an aid bureaucrat, a diplomat (High Commissioner to Zambia and Malawi, Ambassador to Angola) and now describes herself as a ‘rare creature’– Professor of Peace Studies. Given such a varied background, Professor Ware is strongly sympathetic to students who are combining their studies with non-academic employment, and, given the potential impact of peace studies on the real world where people are dying and fleeing as refugees, she is strongly devoted to critical thinking. Professor Ware’s current focus is on working with students to help them to maximise their achievements and to reach their full potential.

UNE: Helen, thank you for participating in our first interview for Research+ in 2018. We thought that this format would suit both the broad theme guiding this edition – truth and intellectual inquiry – and your insights into this topic from the vantage point of your whole career. You state on your UNE webpage that ‘Before criticising the biases of others, we should understand our own. Passionate defence of the rights of the disadvantaged is vital, but must be based on rational grounds and an in-depth understanding of the actual situation’. With this in mind, what do you think about the US President referring to some African countries as ‘shithole’ countries?

Professor Ware: Empathy, even for their own poor fellow citizens, is a quality sadly lacking in many successful politicians in Australia as in the US. Many Westerners are obsessed with sexual immorality, but never think about the immorality of leaving children to starve. President Trump now says that American aid should only go to countries which vote with the US at the UN. He refuses to recognise that UN votes are decided by the dictators and demagogues, not the people, and then he wonders why so many hate the US.

UNE: How does the Western perception of truth misrepresent the realities of life and the challenges facing peoples in these nations?

Professor Ware: People can live fruitful and self-fulfilling lives anywhere, but it does help to have enough to eat and not to hear gun shots on a daily basis. In Australia, we do not have to face bitter choices such as whether to hold a Truth Commission or to bury the past in the interests of maintaining a fragile peace. One African dictator had the electoral slogan: ‘Elect me or I will return the country to civil war’. People believed that this was indeed the truth they had to live with, so he was re-elected. Westerners, especially lawyers, tend to pontificate about the value of justice. But as the father of a girl whose hands had been hacked off by drug crazed rebels said ‘she cannot eat justice’. Very few of us have had to choose whether to risk putting our families at risk and then prison and even torture all in defence of ourbasic beliefs. Here we elect politicians who give tax breaks to the richest. There dictators steal the people’s resources with the collaboration of Western bankers. We lecture people with no access to electricity about tree felling and climate change with no understanding of their realities. Some Western campaigners behave as if they believe that exaggerating, even lying in a good cause is OK but most people in developing countries acknowledge that if you have to lie for a cause it is not good.

UNE: You are supervising a range of PhD students from a range of developing nations – what do you think are the most important issues and insights that these students bring to research?

Professor Ware: I have always learnt more from my students than they have from me. That’s why I love teaching: a new insight every day. When teaching social statistics in Nigeria, my light bulb moment was the discovery that just because someone is following a non-Western logic that does not make them wrong, just different. Every student brings insights from their own cultural world and the interactions between students from varied cultures are intensely rewarding. For example, our peace studies students discuss just how widely Islamic beliefs concerning Sharia vary across countries.

In learning research methods, students need to maintain a difficult balance between being ‘academic’ and being true to their own views of the world. They often start off being too respectful to the Western authorities. I have found myself saying ‘Its your country, not mine, you must know more about it than I do’. What an outsider can contribute is new ways of looking at issues: ‘Are all your politicians corrupt? If so, what are the structural reasons? If not, what distinguishes the good guys?’
At UNE, we are not curious enough about the backgrounds of our overseas doctoral students nor do we make as much use as we could of the many skills they bring with them. The competition to get here is very fierce and many students are
mid-career, so we have students who have come from heading government departments or national human rights NGOs.
For example, a recent UNE graduate had been the secretary to the President’s committee on peace, with an unmatched knowledge of real world politics. Almost any woman who gets an international scholarship to UNE has fought many anti- discrimination battles to get here. We have students who have lived in the refugee camps we write about. Can we possibly imagine the contrast between living for months in a tent with fifty other people, and sharing a heated office with just one other student at UNE?

UNE: You have had a remarkable professional career: based on your experience, what do you think that we from the privileged West have not understood? How do you see the future of these developing nations?

Professor Ware: We should respect their generosity of spirit and their dignity. South Korea was once as poor as the North. Indonesia is now an aid donor. Countries and people do advance when we treat them as we should wish to be treated ourselves.

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