Conclusion: Civil Society as a Necessary and Necessarily Contested Idea
Abstract and Keywords
This article sums up the key findings of this study on the role of civil society in shaping the geometry of human relations. It suggests that civil society is a necessary and necessarily contested idea and that it is not a concept that yields to easy consensus, conclusion or generalization. It describes the change shape of associational life and examines whether civil society can be nurtured. It argues that without competing visions of the good society, public spheres in which they can be developed and solidified, and associations that create an infrastructure for collective action between the individual and the state, no democratic progress would be possible.
As is obvious from the contributions to this handbook, civil society is not a concept that yields to easy consensus, conclusion, or generalization. Context is all, and ideology is closer to the surface of many analyses than their authors might admit, especially around contentious issues such as civil society's normative content and significance, and its relationships with government and the market. These are issues on which even the small numbers of contributors who are represented here sometimes disagree. But wholesale agreement is not essential to the utility of any set of ideas, whether in theory or in practice. As a “necessarily contested concept,” to use Michael Woolcock's description in chapter 16, it is enough that civil society continues to prove itself to be a useful and motivational device in advancing our understanding of key social and political issues, and in channeling energy into action. And on this test it succeeds admirably. One would be hard-put to explain the course of politics, democracy, social relations, and societal change without some reference to the ways in which citizens organize themselves for normative purposes, articulate and argue about their ideas, and fashion some sense of vision and direction for the future of the communities to which they belong. Ideas about civil society do not resolve the tension between society and the market that has animated scholarship and debate for a century or more, for no such absolute resolution is possible. But without competing visions of the good society, public spheres in which they can be developed and (p. 481) solidified, and associations that create an infrastructure for collective action between the individual and the state, no democratic progress would be possible.
As the civil society literature is enriched by more non-Western and nonorthodox perspectives, the differences between schools of thought and their interpretations will grow, and many existing assumptions will be challenged much more deeply. This is surely a healthy development. It has always been somewhat ironic that ideas about collective action have been so influenced by thinkers in the United States—to many the home of individualism—and this tendency continues today with the rise of theories around social enterprise and “philanthrocapitalism” that treat civil society almost as a subset of the market. But as the U.S experience settles into a broader universe of knowledge shaped by ideas from China and the Arab world, Africa, and Latin America, this will change, and—though these societies may yet converge on a common pathway to the future—it is likely that much more attention will be paid to the distinctive characteristics they exhibit around issues of social identity, the role of the state, and other important matters. In addition, the ways in which different social groups understand and interpret these ideas should also find a more central position in the mainstream of civil society thinking, as Hilda Coffé and Catherine Bolzendahl enjoin us to do in their treatment of gender and citizenship in chapter 20. Many more layers of complexity and difference are waiting to be uncovered in the civil society debate.
Nevertheless, patterns do exist, some of which are anchored in common experiences of the challenges of capitalism and democracy and how civil society can help to meet them, and some of which are more superficial, perhaps even artificial, because they are generated by the fluctuating characteristics and preferences of donor support in places where civil society groups rely on outside assistance—for example, support to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that advocate for civil and political liberties, or to those that provide social and economic services to the poor, rather than to other expressions of associational life. These patterns indicate that there are forces acting both for and against indigenous articulations of civil society in both theory and in practice, and this is an important conclusion given that such articulations should have more chance of developing sustained and effective responses to the problems facing their communities. What is it, therefore, that underpins the achievements of civil society across so many different contexts, and what can be done to strengthen those achievements in the future?
1. The Changing Shape of Associational Life
In every context, the structure of associational life is an important influence over outcomes, though clearly there is no automatic “transmission belt” that links the forms, norms, and achievements of civil society together. Yet despite wide differences in history and culture, regime types, funding arrangements, and other significant factors, the (p. 482) shape of associational life does seem to be changing in similar ways across the world, variously described as “professionalization,” “NGO-ization,” “hybridization,” and the erosion of certain kinds of civic participation and engagement. The nonprofit sector has always an important component of associational life, but it seems to be increasingly dominant, especially in providing social services and advocating for change in public policy processes. By contrast, as Theda Skocpol shows for the United States in chapter 9, membership groups—and especially those that tie the interests of different communities together—have been declining for thirty years or more, and survey after survey shows a continuing fall in the proportion of respondents attending meetings, working on community projects, and reading newspapers from the early 1970s onwards.1 In developing countries, NGOs already dominate the landscape of associational life (and are usually funded by foreign aid), even though most societies have their own rich traditions of organizing and debate, albeit in less formal ways. Using the analogy of civil society as an “ecosystem” introduced in chapter 1, it is clear that certain elements are being eroded and others strengthened, and that overall, greater homogeneity is being introduced into the forms of associational life. As in a real, biological ecosystem, this is bound to have significant effects over time.
Does this mean that civil society is in decline? In some ways and in some places, yes—though this decline may be offset, at least in part, by the rise of new forms of engagement, often based around social media and the Internet, and by new types of association such as social enterprise and social entrepreneurs, which Alex Nicholls sees as potentially revolutionary in chapter 7. As yet, it is unclear what the aggregate effects of these changes are going to be, but why are traditional forms of civic participation and activism under greater pressure? As Robert Putnam (2000) and others have tried to show for the United States, a myriad of factors are involved, ranging from structural changes in the economy and the workforce (which reduce the time available for voluntary activities), to rising factionalism in politics amid the “culture wars” of the last twenty years (which have destroyed bridges between different social groups), to the rise of more passive forms of media production and consumption, from television to Twitter. Widespread insecurity and inequality may be especially important, and are explored below. All these factors weaken large-scale, mass-based, bottom-up, cross-class, and multi-issue organizing and other forms of civic action.
But there are also more deliberate forces at work. Despite their stated support for democratization, donor agencies have consistently sought out and funded service delivery by NGOs, with some advocacy around the edges, ignoring or devaluing other roles and other expressions of associational life from burial societies to political-religious movements—despite the fact that such groups have stronger roots in their own constituencies and therefore more legitimacy and sticking power in terms of social action. The agenda of the “new public management” described by Steven Rathgeb Smith in chapter 3 has been a powerful force around the world in favoring more professional and/or bureaucratic civil society groups who can meet increased demands for reporting and accountability around public service and other contracts, a social and economic role that is welcomed by even authoritarian and semiauthoritarian regimes who are nervous about civil society's more political (p. 483) activities. At a more basic level, the struggle between “neo-liberal” and “participatory” models of civil society painted by Evelina Dagnino for Latin America in chapter 10 is playing out across a much wider range of contexts, often being decided in favor of the nonprofit sector in substitution for the state—so much so that civil society and the social economy of nonprofit service provision are often conflated. Such a dangerously reductive approach strips civil society of much of its meaning and potential, and this is why changes in the structure of associational life are so important, especially if they are engineered from the outside.
As Alan Fowler points out in chapter 4, development NGOs are much less likely to act as carriers of alternative ideas and energies if they captured by the foreign aid system and its priorities, managed through technocracy, and distanced from domestic social movements and other civic and political actors who have more purchase over the drivers of development. Spaces for “public work,” as Harry Boyte describes them in chapter 26, have been systematically eroded in the United States by a rising predilection for service-providing nonprofits, and when the language and practices of contracting replace those of trust and solidarity, one would expect the normative effects of associational life to be somewhat different. These effects might be mitigated by combining different forms and roles together in creative ways, as in the “social change organizations” described by Frances Kunreuther in chapter 5, or when churches and other faith-based groups integrate service delivery with advocacy and community organizing, but these remain unorthodox approaches (Minkoff 2002). Elsewhere, the changing shape of associational life may indeed be damaging to the broader prospects of civil society, and to the “democratic associational ecologies” that Mark Warren highlights in chapter 30 as the key to civil society's long-term political impact. As a number of contributors put it for the Middle East, India, Sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere, “more NGOs” do not a civil society make. In that case, what does?
2. Civil and Uncivil Society
A great deal of energy has been expended on defining “uncivil” society, perhaps because, once so defined, it might go away, or at least cease to complicate some models of civil society's normative content and significance. But as Clifford Bob points out in chapter 17, much, if not most of this effort is misguided. Persistent differences in norms and values are the reality of every human society, and inevitably they are expressed in, by, and through associations and the public sphere. Indeed, this is one of the prime purposes of public work and public deliberation—to provide spaces in which these differences can be aired and argued through to some sort of consensus. So rather than fretting in the abstract about which groups “qualify” for civil society membership, it is more productive to use conflict around different views as a pathway to the “good societies” that should emerge out of democratic negotiation. Writing about the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (p. 484) (RSS) in India in chapter 14, which some would classify as a clearly “uncivil” movement, Neera Chandhoke concludes that “the only way in which such associations can be neutralized is through contestation in civil society itself.”
As Donatella della Porta and Mario Diani point out in chapter 6, civil society theory and social movement theory have often been divided on the issue of conflicts over power and their value, and there is no doubt that this approach necessitates a celebration of diversity at a much deeper level, and a higher level of comfort with contestation, than have been present in much of the discussion to date—but it is the only way to advance civil society's transformative potential, since transformation implies the ability to break up and re-order power relations, norms, and values. As Jenny Pearce puts it in chapter 32, “the normative power of civil society lies not in the specific values which different traditions attach to the concept, but in the general value of aspiring to such a society, created through the contested values of what ‘good’ actually means.” And even if these contestations take place in imperfect conditions of equality, nonviolence, and democracy in the deepest sense of that word, there is more of a chance that they will “bend towards justice” over the very long term, to paraphrase Martin Luther King's famous maxim, a point to which I turn next.
It is clear that successful, democratic negotiations of this kind require some boundaries—some norms and values of their own—since otherwise they would quickly break apart or be dominated by powerful interest groups, especially in settings where high levels of inequality and discrimination continue to exist. There are at least two ways of setting out these boundaries. The first is to insist on support for the “contested core conditions” of civil society that were described in chapter 1—those things without which no theory of civil society could function effectively in linking means and ends, even if some differences in interpretation continue to exist. Chief among these conditions are nonviolence and support for high levels of equality. A commitment to physical nonviolence ensures that no group can destroy absolutely the rights of others to participate, but it does not prevent the conflicts and contestations that are essential to a thriving civil society. “Peace is an activity of cultivating the process of agreeing,” not simply the absence of war (Pearce, this volume), and to be effective and sustainable this “process of agreeing” must allow all voices to be heard. As Sally Kohn points out in chapter 19, and as many other contributors confirm, large-scale inequality impedes the functioning of civil society in all three of the definitions covered in this handbook—associational life, the good society, and the public sphere—and more particularly they also fracture the linkages that connect these three understandings together. Inequalities in associational life privilege civic and political participation by some groups over others, allowing them undue voice and influence in the public sphere and enabling them to skew collective visions of the good society towards their interests.
The second way of approaching the issue of civil society's normative boundaries is to focus on the connections that can be nurtured between the values of particular groups, and some larger set of norms that bind groups together in common cause, or at least in a common conversation about the shape of social progress. In times of war or national crisis this is obviously much easier, but the bonds of mutual (p. 485) sacrifice that are often forged during episodes like this rarely linger long—which is one reason why observers in the United States often lament the passing of high levels of civic engagement during and after World War II that underpinned the GI Bill of 1944 and other landmark social achievements (Skocpol, this volume). In chapter 18, Nina Eliasoph tackles this issue by exploring the relationships between “civility” (defined as interaction that is respectful, tolerant and decent) and “civic-ness” (defined as a commitment to press for wider changes that extend these values throughout society). By strengthening the ties between civility and civic-ness through associational life and public work, she argues, civil society takes on a more transformative persona. In this task, face-to-face interaction is essential, since—like rocks in a stream—the sharp edges of their differences can be softened over time as people knock against each other in the rough and tumble of civic life. Unfortunately for the “techno-optimists” that Roberta Lentz reviews in chapter 27, this is not a task that can be achieved in cyberspace or by using social media.
In many ways religion and spirituality are linked together in similar fashion. As the contributions from Donald Miller and Claudia Horwitz both make clear (chapters 21 and 22), only when religion is connected to, and anchored in, transcendent experience and universal human values does it become potentially transformative, building on, but not being imprisoned by, the particularities of each faith tradition, mosque or church. There are clear echoes throughout this conversation of “the love that does justice,” Martin Luther King's philosophy that shows how personal and social transformation are intimately linked together (Edwards and Sen 2000; Edwards and Post 2008). Civil society can be, but is not necessarily transformative of power, as John Gaventa puts it in chapter 33. What seems to make the difference is the explicit articulation of these linkages and their use in guiding behavior at all times—among individuals, groups, and eventually whole institutions. When this happens, the means and ends of civil society are united, and a “strong civil society” can foster “societies that are strong and civil” (Edwards 2009). In other words, when certain conditions are present, the forms, norms, and spaces of civil society connect with each other in common purpose. But what if these conditions are not met? What if inequality and other barriers to participation are rooted in civil society itself? Can threats to the public sphere be dealt with simply through more debate and deliberation?
3. Threats to the Public Sphere
Placing one's faith in the theories of Jürgen Habermas has become a standard response in the civil society debate to questions of moral pluralism and consensus making, and there is no doubt that the debate has improved greatly as a result. Without a range of overlapping public spheres and the processes that take place inside them, even a rich fabric of voluntary associations could achieve little in the aggregate. However, as many contributors to this handbook point out, Habermas (p. 486) underestimates the forces that shape public spheres and interfere with their ability to generate democratic outcomes, and at a time of rising economic inequality across the world, increasing concentrations of corporate power, and continued political repression in many countries, these forces may be growing stronger. To imagine that one can strengthen civil society by eroding the things that people depend on to be active citizens makes little sense, yet inequalities and power relations of various kinds have often been ignored or devalued in discussions of civic life, perhaps because some have their origins in, or at least are mirrored by, voluntary associations themselves. This is why, contrary to much neo-Tocquevillean thinking, civil society cannot fix itself—and if it cannot fix itself then it is unlikely to be able to fix society as a whole. Confronting poverty, inequality, and discrimination requires action by states and markets too, but civil society cannot afford to be captured by these other institutions if it is to hold them accountable for their actions and fulfill its role as the carrier of different norms and values.
Inevitably then, civil society is forever positioned in a Janus-faced relationship with both government and business. On the one hand, equal protections must be anchored in the law and backed up by public policies and regulations, while the economy must be free to create jobs and expand the surpluses required for consumption and redistribution. This requires a stance of constructive engagement on the part of civic actors. On the other hand, without constant pressure and monitoring from civil society, neither governments nor businesses are likely to use their power in the public interest, and this necessitates a stance of critical distance, or at least independence. This is why some recent trends in civil society thinking and practice constitute both opportunities and threats, like the expansion of social enterprise and the rise of more overt forms of civil society organizing for political ends. The costs and benefits of these strategies must be carefully weighed to ensure that good intentions are not submerged by unintended consequences, and this requires a well-developed set of capacities that can help civic groups to come to informed decisions about strategy and tactics. In chapter 11, Marc Morjé Howard calls this a shift from “oppositional” to “democratic” civil society, and concludes that the weakness of associations and public engagement in post-Communist Europe can be attributed, at least in part, to a failure to make this transition.
Hence, the encounter between civil society and the market can foster both transformation and greater inequality, depending on the terms of this engagement, and on this question the contributors are divided. In chapters 7 and 34, Alex Nicholls and Simon Zadek argue strongly that closer relationships are positive, and indeed imperative, if civil society is to have more impact on poverty, injustice, and social needs. Sometimes these relationships will take the form of hybrid institutions, and at other times they will operate through what Zadek describes as “civil regulation”—or various forms of advocacy and co-governance that help to shape corporate activity. Taking a somewhat different view, John Ehrenberg concludes chapter 2 by stressing the paramount importance of economic democratization and democratic political action in addressing key structural problems in society. Civic traditions of voluntarism and localism are simply unable to cope with the rise of globalizing capitalism (p. 487) and the power of large, multinational corporations, and, as Lisa Jordan points out in chapter 8, global civil society has not yet reached the point at which it can act as an effective counterweight to global markets. In terms of the balance of power in most contemporary settings, markets outrank civil society at almost every level, and public spheres have been further eroded by the privatization and commercialization of the media, knowledge production, and large parts of education. The civic knowledge that Peter Levine describes in chapter 29 is in increasingly short supply. These trends make the protection and expansion of public spaces even more important, despite the difficulties involved, a point strongly made by Craig Calhoun and Charles Lewis in chapters 25 and 28. At all costs, such spaces must not be captured by business or other concentrated private interests, and clearly governments have a major role to play in ensuring that this does not happen.
Unfortunately, relations between civil society and government are not moving in this direction in many parts of the world. Authoritarian and semiauthoritarian regimes continue to constrain, and in some cases actively repress, civil society, at least in its political manifestations, though as Jude Howell shows for China in chapter 13, such strategies can be quite sophisticated in carefully calibrating different spaces for nonprofit service provision and citizen advocacy at different times. Even in mature democracies, however, few governments are comfortable in actively promoting civil societies that are strong and independent enough to challenge their authority, especially after the events of September 11, 2001 and the ensuing war on terror which has exposed certain groups and activities to particular attention and interference. In chapters 23 and 24, Nancy Rosenblum, Charles Lesch, and Mark Sidel examine how to balance the rights and responsibilities of civil society in this context, highlighting the dangers of overregulation and advocating for approaches that are based on partnerships, mutual agreements, or “compacts” which protect zones of independent citizen action, even when large numbers of nonprofit groups are funded by government expenditure.
Whichever position one adopts, it is clear that the structure of the economy and the nature of the political regime are the most powerful factors in determining the shape and functioning of associations and the public sphere, including in settings where religion is sometimes assumed to be paramount—a point well-made by Eberhard Kienle in chapter 12 in relation to the supposed incompatibility between civil society and Islam. But if this is the case, where does this leave the growing industry of donor agencies, foundations and other institutions that aim to “build” or “strengthen” civil society by focusing on particular forms of association across radically different contexts?
4. Can Civil Society Be Nurtured?
Omar Encarnación opens his account of donor assistance in chapter 37 with the story of Iraq's first Ministry of Civil Society, a peculiar priority in a country lacking (p. 488) basic security and services but not so strange given the influence of American democracy promoters after the deposition of Saddam Hussein's regime—who, not unnaturally, were no doubt enamored of Alexis de Tocqueville and his ideas. The point of this story goes beyond the obvious issues of sequencing and the dangers of inappropriate intervention, to pose more fundamental questions about the meaning of “civil society-building” at a much deeper level. If civil society means many different things and if these differences must be reconciled through dialogue and conflict over long periods of time, is there anything useful that can be done to accelerate the development of associations and public spaces in ways that are responsible, and to foster more interaction between them and with the state and the market in order to promote a more sustainable vision of the good society?
In many ways we know what not to do in answering this question, but we are much less clear about the alternatives. A forced march to civil society Western-style will do little to support the emergence of sustainable forms and norms in China, Africa, or the Middle East. An overemphasis on NGOs and service-delivery projects cannot change the civic and political cultures of India or Mississippi. And support for community media and public journalism won’t, by itself, create a democratic public sphere. These are the priorities of most donor agencies and foundations, not because they are proven to be effective, but because they are easier to fund, report on, and manage. By contrast, the organic processes of civil society development are messy and unpredictable, and lie outside the control of the foreign aid system or philanthropy. As a result, even the more sophisticated efforts to nurture the ecosystems of associational life tend to short-circuit vital questions of culture, values, and politics, questions which do so much to determine the shape and functioning of civil society in all of its disguises. In his review of civil society in Sub-Saharan Africa in chapter 15, Ebenezer Obadare criticizes donor agencies for their tendency to substitute NGO capacity-building for the development of a “truly democratic political culture,” echoing Encarnación's broader reservations about the sequencing of civil society assistance with political institutionalization. Leaving aside the question of whether these deeper and more overtly political tasks are amenable to outside assistance of any kind, these critics raise some very important points. Obviously context is important: as Solava Ibrahim and David Hulme emphasize in chapter 31, effective assistance to civil society poverty reduction efforts is not the same in India as it is in Bangladesh, where a much weaker state invites a larger role for NGOs in delivering basic social and economic services, ideally with some long-term impact on the claim-making capacities of citizens. But as a general conclusion, the priorities of civil society support have been inverted, with the least important factors receiving the most attention (like the number of NGOs), and the most important factors often being ignored—like indigenous expressions of associational life and their connections with political society, or at a more basic level, guarantees of human security.
In that case, what kinds of support would be more useful? In theoretical terms, though drawn from a wide range of empirical experiences explored in this handbook, the ideal would be a well articulated and inclusive ecosystem of locally supported voluntary associations, matched by a strong and democratically accountable state, (p. 489) with a multiplicity of public spheres that enable full and equal participation in setting the rules of every game. A society like this, in which different institutions consolidate their relationships with each other at a pace appropriate to the context around a gradually expanding economic base, would allow civil society to evolve organically and sort through the problems that are often associated with external assistance. Clearly, this type of society does not exist anywhere, particularly in low-income countries, but by working backwards from this ideal it is easier to identify what can usefully be done, and when.
First of all, there is a choice to do as a little as possible and simply let things take their course—to do no harm, so to speak, in the knowledge that any intervention runs the risk of producing consequences that are unforeseen. In a field as complicated and contingent as civil society, this is an attractive proposition, but it is unnecessarily restrictive because it ignores the fact that the preconditions for civil society—like security, equality, and the space to organize and express opinions—are all things that can be influenced without pushing associations in one direction or another. Support to these preconditions is one of the most useful things that donors can do, though clearly it does not produce the kind of short-term, quantifiable results that are so popular with a new generation of philanthropists and international bureaucrats. Once equipped with these basic elements of human flourishing, people can build whatever kind of civil society suits their interests and agendas. But what else can be done?
In chapters 35 and 36, the contributors offer different perspectives on this question from the viewpoint of philanthropy, which has always been an important support to associations and the infrastructure of the public sphere, at least in the United States. William Schambra and Krista Shaffer argue strongly for a minimalist approach in which philanthropic institutions support the self-organizing processes that mark out civil society, especially at the local level, and stay away from grand designs and the scientific analysis of “root causes.” Albert Ruesga offers a modification of this approach, based on the recognition that local associations struggle to deal with problems of a broader, structural nature and have no monopoly over wisdom, so that philanthropy “with” and “from” the grassroots can play an important role in strengthening and connecting movements and networks that are still driven by authentically popular initiatives. By building the independent capacities of a broad base of citizens to engage with each other and take collective action, philanthropy can support civil society to shape itself with a little more help along the way—not in the short-term, highly targeted, pseudoscientific way that is favored by technocrats, but gradually, over time, and directed by people's own interpretations of root causes and the strategies that are required to address them. Support for social groups who are disadvantaged in some way is especially important, since this helps to level the playing field for associational life and public interaction. To take a non-Western example from Myanmar, local organizations, with support from outside the country, have adopted a range of lower-profile tactics after the suppression of street protests in 2009 which seek to take advantage of small-scale political openings and build some of the (p. 490) preconditions for longer term civil and political engagement, including the introduction of new ideas and training in basic organizational skills. Over time, there is some chance that these kinds of support will help to knit together a strong and sustainable fabric of civic life and interaction.2
There are no final words on civil society, because civil society is constantly being reinterpreted and recreated. This is particularly true at a time when emerging superpowers like China, India, and Brazil are entering and beginning to reshape global debates about politics and economics, often from the perspective of their own knowledge base and traditions which, in civil society terms, may differ markedly from the trajectories of North America and Europe, from where most civil society theory to date has emerged. In years to come, scholars and activists may be learning about civil society from the experiences of Kerala, Bolivia, and South Africa, and carrying these lessons back to California and London, as well as, one hopes, the other way around. The civil society debate will certainly be all the richer for it. Yet across very different contexts, as the contributions to this handbook show, civil society is most valuable as a set of concepts and practices when it is additional to, and not captured by, government and business—when it is seen and supported as its own distinctive creation rather than as the consequence of state or market failure.
As Ebenezer Obadare puts it in chapter 15, there has been much legitimate criticism of civil society ideas and assistance in Africa and elsewhere, but there is also a need to move “beyond the backlash” in order to focus on developing a body of scholarship that can yield more useful insights. This is only possible if the debate is pluralized and opened up to new and different perspectives. To do otherwise—to attempt to fix civil society in the context of one particular experience or interpretation—would be against the spirit of civil society itself. It is that challenge—blending widespread differences into a “geometry of human relations,” as John Ehrenberg puts it in chapter 2—that will frame both the theory and practice of civil society long into the future.
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(1.) Data from the General Social Survey and the DDB Needham Life Survey is available at www.peterlevine.ws/mt/archives/2010/06/the-old-order-p.html, accessed August 22, 2010.
(2.) “Seeds of Hope in Burma,” reprinted in the Guardian Weekly from the Washington Post, November 9, 2009 (no author given).