Nov 6, 2013

Ambivalent Aspirations of Aid: Commitments of Kye:zu: (Debt-Gratitude) Among Burmese Aid Workers in a Japanese NGO

Chika Watanabe, Postdoctoral Fellow, Inter-Asia Program, Yale University, MacMillan Center

Japan has long been the largest donor of aid in Burma/Myanmar, and Japanese NGOs have also played a significant role in the country.  In this paper, I focus on Burmese staff’s conceptualizations and experiences of aid work in one of the oldest Japanese NGOs in Burma/Myanmar, the Organization for Industrial, Spiritual and Cultural Advancement (OISCA).  Specifically, I examine how the ethical labor of aid work for Burmese actors was constituted through the moral obligations of kye:zu:, roughly translated as debt-gratitude, that they expressed towards OISCA.  I suggest, however, that their professional aspirations and commitments were motivated, not so much by the assertion of this moral principle, but rather, by its limits and moments of uncertainty.  I argue that what made aid work an ethical endeavor for Burmese staff were the moments when the moral imperative of kye:zu: was simultaneously upheld and destabilized, constantly creating occasions for commitment and re-commitment.  The attention to this dynamic shows how the everyday labor of aid work for local staff is often defined by a double-edged sword, meaningful on the one hand and doubtful on the other.  Ultimately, a question arises about the possibilities and impossibilities of the future in Japanese NGOs’ development aid in Burma/Myanmar. 

Chika Watanabe is an Inter-Asia Program postdoc at the Macmillan Center. She holds a PhD in Anthropology from Cornell University, where she researched Japanese aid ideologies, practices of "making persons" (hitozukuri), and the indistinction between the religious and the secular in a Japanese NGO and its projects in Burma/Myanmar. Tacking back and forth between aid work and academia, she has worked with Japanese and Burmese NGOs, and holds a Masters degree in Refugee Studies from Oxford University. Based on her fieldwork experiences across Japan and Burma/Myanmar, her work at Yale will include advancing Inter-Asian perspectives and teaching an undergraduate seminar titled "Humanitarianism Across Asia." While keeping an eye on Burma/Myanmar, her next major project will examine aid practices in the aftermath of the March 2011 disasters in Japan. 

For current Yale SEAS Seminars and Events calendar, see: