Commitments of Debt: Temporality and the Meanings of Aid Work in a Japanese NGO in Myanmar

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The rise of debt as a mechanism of development troubles many scholars and aid practitioners. Contrary to these concerns, however, ethnographic research at a Japanese NGO in Myanmar showed that Japanese and Burmese aid workers found value in moral and monetary debt relations. In this article, I argue that these aid workers viewed indebtedness as a precondition for the making of voluntary actors, willing and committed to aid work. What they problematized was not indebtedness but, rather, competing understandings of the appropriate temporality of a debt’s repayment. The fault lines did not appear along cultural or moral-monetary boundaries; they existed in the ways that people conceptualized voluntary actors as emerging from either long-term forms of indebted gratitude or sequences of short-term contractual agreements. While the entrapment of the poor in cycles of debt remains an increasing concern in the world, I here ask how we might understand local aid workers’ professional commitments when they do not question indebtedness as a moral framework. [NGO, debt, gratitude, temporality, commitment,Myanmar]
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)468-479
Number of pages11
JournalAmerican Anthropologist
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2015


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