Thinking Strategically: An Interview with Nicola Macbean, Founder and Director of The Rights Practice

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  • Thinking Strategically: An Interview with Nicola Macbean, Founder and Director of The Rights Practice

This interview was conducted by Dr Andreas Fulda ((Dr Andreas Fulda is an academic practitioner with an interest in social change, organisational development and documentary filmmaking. During the past ten years Dr Fulda has helped design and implement three major capacity building initiatives for Chinese CSOs: the Participatory Urban Governance Programme for Migrant Integration (2006-07), the Social Policy Advocacy Coalition for Healthy and Sustainable Communities (2009-11) and the EU-China Civil Society Dialogue Programme on Participatory Public Policy (2011-14). Dr Fulda is also the editor of the book Civil Society Contributions to Policy Innovation in the PR China (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2015). Contact:; as part of a research project commissioned by Geneva Global. It is published by China Development Brief and Geneva Global. Geneva Global is an innovative social enterprise that works with clients to maximize the performance of their global philanthropic and social impact initiatives. The interview reflects the independent opinion of the interviewee and does not represent the views of the publishers.

To download the interview as a PDF click here.

To view the rest of the series click here.

To view the Chinese-language version click here.


Andreas Fulda (AF): Please tell me more about your motivation to establish The Rights Practice in 2002.

Nicola Macbean (NM): My initial motivation was job creation (laughs). I was living in Paris at the time. Previously I had been working with the Great Britain-China Centre. In Paris I wanted to carry on working with China on human rights questions. I realised that I needed to set up an organisation in order to do that. There was not a lot of interesting work available as a consultant. The key question that interested me was how do we put human rights into practice? I felt that there was a gap in the way international organisations worked in China. To succeed, they would need to work more in partnership on specific issues.

AF: You have both a UK- and a US-division of The Rights Practice and two boards. How did this come about? It is quite unusual for a non-profit organisation to have two branches in two different countries.

NM: This was due to good luck. Jennifer Eikren, who now works for us in the US, originally worked with me in London. She has a China background herself and when she moved back to New York we decided to set up an office in the US. This would not only enable us to apply for US funding, but also access more contacts. Legally, we are two distinct organisations. But we are working towards the same objectives. The two organisations have separate boards which each make their own decisions.

AF: You now have been working on China for the past twelve years. When you reflect on the projects that you have been conducting since 2002, what kind of changes do you see? What are your key criteria for the initiatives that you support in China? To what extent do you consider the Chinese government’s position on civil society initiatives in your internal decision making processes?

NM: Our approach to deciding what kind of initiatives we are going to support is primarily determined by our overall strategy. We have a process within The Rights Practice of developing our own three to five year strategy, setting out what we are trying to achieve and think we can do. Of course as part of this strategic review we look at the external environment in which we are working. When developing this strategy we would therefore need to think of all relevant stakeholders. That would clearly include the views of the Chinese government. It would also include Chinese civil society. We would also reflect on the donor environment. We have identified a number of programming priorities. Through our work we want to improve access to justice. We also want to protect people who are facing any kind of detention. More specifically, we want to protect their personal integrity rights. Finally, we support the right to participate. Those are our three priority areas. We would be looking to support people and groups who are also working towards goals in those three areas. We would also be looking to work with people who we think share our values around human rights, diversity and participation. Also, we are not a donor. We act as an intermediary organization and try to bring more than just money to the partnership. Our added value may include sharing international experience on a specific issue. Or we help build our partner’s capacity to carry out effective projects. We are also looking at fairly long term partnerships.

AF: When you tender for a bid, do you do that on your own or do you partner with a Chinese civil society organisation, be it a government- organised non-governmental organisation or a grassroots NGO or an academic institution? This could be necessary in the context of compulsory competitive tendering bids.

NM: We will always be working with somebody on the ground in China. The programmes we run always involve partnerships since our work is about building local capacity. But partnerships may be more or less formal depending on the type of funding and the nature of the local implementing organizations.

AF: How do you determine who is taking the lead in a cooperation project?

NM: It should be determined by what it is needed to achieve the project’s objectives. We are primarily interested in building the capacity of our partners and encourage them to take the lead on activities. Our staff in China liaise and work with local partners on the ground. They meet them regularly and identify what help they need from us; this may be international experience, for example, or how to design a training course. It is very much about having regular and open lines of communication and sharing ideas.

AF: I am curious to learn more about your partnership models. Do you usually establish partnerships with one organisation? Or depending on the scope of the project or programme have you have also tried to engage with various partners simultaneously? Or do you find this too cumbersome and difficult in the Chinese context?

NM: Some of our projects have multiple partners. Again, this is usually driven by the particular needs of the project and based on what each of the partners would be bringing to the cooperation. In some projects we are working with quite small and young NGOs. They all have their own specific capabilities. Working with a couple of partners is advantageous because between them they may be able to work with a range of stakeholders across the country. And they can learn from different types of experience and different approaches. Some partners are aspiring to be specialists, whereas other organisations are better connected with local communities. We find that our partner organisations are quite complementary in what they are trying to do; the complexity of social change seems to require the participation of different kinds of organisations. In a sense you are right that working with many partners can make things a bit more complicated. But we try to be quite clear about who is doing what. We do not have a single cooperation model for all our projects.

AF: Do you feel there is also a change in the way foreign and domestic organisations communicate and cooperate with one another? I have noticed – and I am painting a picture in very broad brush-strokes now – that there is a tendency among some Chinese grassroots organisations to become very nativist. By nativist I mean that they insist that in China things have to be done the ‘Chinese way’, whatever that means in practice. And then there are other people who are quite open to international practices and ideas. Do you come across this kind of dichotomy? Does it exist in your experience? Or do you have a different experience?

NM: I have not found a huge tension in this respect. This could be because our projects are about promoting human rights. All our projects try to reference international human rights law and standards. We also share the experiences of other countries. This does not necessarily have to be Europe or the United States, but increasingly we also share experiences from countries in the Asian region. How do they tackle the same problems? Essentially we are dealing with very similar challenges that all societies and all countries face. Obviously, every country has its own history and experiences of how to address these challenges, but there is always a potential to learn from other countries. We certainly encourage that. We have no intention to come in and impose a solution to a problem that has worked in the UK. Instead we would first ask what are the questions or problems that you are currently dealing with. We then ask ourselves what kind of knowledge and experience could be shared with our partners? What we bring to a project has got to be able to speak to the level of awareness and thinking that is currently going on in China. Certainly among the groups that we are working with I have not found any reservations about learning from overseas experience. But we are not trying to impose any model or tell people how they should do things. We encourage people to go back to the fundamentals. In our work on combatting torture we have to think about fundamental issues, for example, how people in detention should be treated. Then, we can look at how different countries have approached this question.

AF: If I understand you correctly you apply an improvement-oriented perspective. You seem to be trying to improve what exists rather than come in with a very strong normative and judgmental perspective. Is this a fair characterization of your work? To me it seems that you are trying to do two things at the same time. On the one hand you seem to be keen to introduce human rights ideas which are global and multi-national. And then you see that these norms are not necessarily always shared by all stakeholders in China. So it seems to be quite difficult to square this circle.

NM: The people we work with do not object to any of the human rights principles. None of them. We would not directly partner with people who reject human rights and the idea that there are universal values. However, there will always be some differences when we discuss what these principles mean in practice. But I think that is separate from the normative judgment. Our partners try to influence other people’s thinking about human rights. They raise awareness and want to improve practices. In this process they may encounter some resistance. But we have not experienced much rejection of human rights ideas. Most of the problems concern practice. I have attended meetings with Chinese officials, lawyers and academics and found a large degree of consensus around the normative issue of rejecting torture. But then in terms

Influencing people’s thinking about human rights

of the actual implications for practice, for example the transparency and accountability of institutions, opinions diverge. I think if you can try to work from these normative principles, where there is usually agreement, you can then try to address the specific questions of what this should mean in practice. Of course this is how international law and standards emerged, but most Chinese lawyers, scholars and officials were not part of this process. Involving people in thinking through these ideas for themselves can help to establish consensus and avoid some of the kinds of tensions you imply.

AF: I understand that you are not only having these conversations with officials, with people who make decisions in China but that you also work with people in China’s civil society sector. Do you have a particular understanding of civil society in your organisation? If not, how do you frame your discourse about civil society?

NM: My original academic background was the study of anthropology. I try to understand empirically what is happening on the ground. Based on my observations over time I would say that there is definitively some form of civil society in China. If you are thinking of that as a society emerging which is really independent of the state it is relatively weak. But civil society has definitely grown in size; it has spread across the country and also has become more diverse in terms of the issues that interests it. Over the years groups of people have emerged who recognize that they need to have the substantive expertise to challenge government perspectives. For instance they want to provide alternative views. Of course the capacity of people varies and civil society organisations are spread rather unevenly across the country. I remember one of our partners once talking about a province in China and saying “there is no society there” (mei you shehui). They just didn’t see any kind of independent social actors. But we work with a whole range of people. We work with lawyers, community-groups or some of the small NGOs. They may not even be registered as charities. As you know the regulatory environment for CSOs is not very welcoming. We would also include universities where they have centres and groups that are working on human rights issues, usually within law schools. That is the kind of spread of partners we work within civil society. Some of our partners are then working with more grassroots groups, which may be difficult for us to contact directly. We also do not think that this is necessarily our role. If our partners are building the capacity of other grassroots groups then it is probably more appropriate for us to support them to do that, rather than doing this ourselves.

AF: You are talking about capacity building. From your experience over the past twelve years, and previously you worked for the Great Britain-China Centre as well, what kind of instruments do you feel in international cooperation, particularly in the human rights field, are the most powerful instruments? For example instruments such as study tours, trainings in the UK or in China, or local pilot initiatives? Could you provide me with one or two examples where you felt you really had an impact or effect on your partners and other stakeholders based on the added value that you created through your work?

NM: This is quite a complex issue. I would say that all those instruments, as you call them, can play a part, but I think that they are only effective if they are integrated into the organisation’s strategy. An organisation needs to have a clear idea of what they are trying to achieve. Again, that will vary according to the specific circumstances. Let us take pilot initiatives for example. In this regard the external environment in China has changed a bit.

When I first set up the The Rights Practice we were working on juvenile justice. We had a very receptive partner in Shanghai. Through a number of different types of activities, for example very participatory workshops in China, or by bringing people over from the UK working on aspects of juvenile justice we introduced UK pre-trial practice. There was a huge interest in the UK’s institution of ‘appropriate adults’. When children are being interviewed by the police they need to have an appropriate adult present. Chinese law allowed for this possibility. Our partner at the Chinese university led on this and made the case that they could do this in China as well. What I found to be really essential was that there was a local champion. There was a professor there who I had known for many years and he championed not only the ideas but also the participatory methodology. We brought over people who had a variety of experience and ran workshops which enabled our Chinese colleagues to fully engage with the issue and ideas. We also included a study tour for our Chinese colleagues. So over a period of a couple of years we had a range of experience sharing. And that work has now found its way into Chinese law. It may not look exactly the way it does in the UK, but that is ok because it is a Chinese version of the appropriate adult approach. And it is there in the new Criminal Procedure Law. In the future it will be harder to have that kind of impact and say “look what we have done”.

I think that it is a more difficult policy environment in China now. It is harder for universities to be as innovative in the pilot work and the policy advocacy they do. They are a bit more constrained, particularly when there are foreign partners involved. Each of the instruments you mention does different things and can reach different people. Often you would need a whole mix of different ways in which you can try to help the people involved in pilot projects gain a new understanding. You may need to start by doing some awareness raising that there is actually a problem which needs to be addressed. And then you need to start discussing possible solutions. This needs to be followed by a process of reflection and thinking and how the proposed solutions could work in China. This would often involve bringing together people with different backgrounds. You would involve academics, but you would also include officials who are actually working on the ground. Maybe you would also include lawyers and others who might see the problems differently and who are partners in the process.

We always emphasize that all of this is a process, a learning process for everyone. But then again pilot projects may not necessarily be the best instrument for independent NGOs. That may not be something they aspire to. They may not have the capability to sit down with the government the way a university centre can.

AF: Let us continue talking about pilots and the related issue of policy innovation and policy change. It seems to me to be a kind of ‘gold standard’ in foundation work or NGO/NPO work. On the other hand, as you pointed out yourself, it is not always possible to influence or shape policies and laws. With your emphasis on learning, how have you tried to facilitate that learning apart from these instruments? For example what role does reporting and documentation play in your work? To me it seems a very important in this line of work to document.

NM: Absolutely. We have expectations of our partners in terms of the kind of reporting that they do for us. Partly that is to capture a certain amount of information which we may need just to be able to report to donors, in order to be accountable. We have model reporting forms and adapt them for different partners. We ask them to document what actually happened within an activity and to reflect on whether or not it achieved its purpose. We also ask the question “how would you do it differently next time”? And then we will try to periodically reflect overall on what the project is trying to do and what our partner’s experiences have been. This allows them to reflect whether or not they need to adjust their approach to things. We try and encourage our partners to do this not just because we are asking them to do it but so that they begin to realise that this is useful. Sometimes we have to spend some time explaining to our partners what we are looking for. If you are asking your partners whether their activity has been successful they will reply yes. But then we would ask them what their criteria of success are. We tell them that they would learn more if they were completely honest. We don’t mind if they report that something did not quite work. They can say that they did not actually prepare an activity well enough. Or we did not think about this or that or the right people did not attend. These learning processes are very important.

AF: In this line of work it seems clear to me that some activities will be very successful, whereas other activities— for a variety of reasons— will not be quite as successful. How do you learn from successful and unsuccessful initiatives? Do you encourage your staff to also look at cases of failure and try to learn from things that have not worked?

NM: Yes. Within our organisation at least two staff members are working on a project. This ensures that there is a conversation going on between them. One person has an oversight role and primarily asks questions. I will also engage in that process on all of the projects. We try to look at what seems to be working. We also ask where the problems are. If there are problems, we ask ourselves whether we conceived the project properly. Or are there problems for which we have not yet found the right way to address them? Sometimes the issue may be with the partner’s own organisational capacity. In that case we realize that they are part of the problem and we need to help them. We have regular meetings with partners in which we look at what they are doing and whether it is seems to be working. We hope through trusting relationships we can all better understand what works, what does not and why.

AF: Sometimes projects and programmes have been critiqued for their lack of sustainability or the long-term viability of project-based inputs. You mentioned one very successful example of juvenile justice innovation that you were facilitating through your work. Do you have any other examples were you felt that with your emphasis on procedure and process- oriented work you have been able, in a very sustainable way, to gradually move towards improvements in a certain area?

NM: Policy sustainability is probably the most challenging area. A couple of our projects work on policy issues, but at the moment they haven’t experienced significant breakthroughs. They are still trying to shore up policy support on the official side. In terms of some of the other projects we are focusing more and more on organizational sustainability, both at the individual and organizational level. Does the organisation feel more empowered? Does it feel that it has acquired improved skills and capacity and will be more effective? Can it be more strategic? Does it recognise what it can and what it cannot do? How does it contribute to the change they want to bring about? We usually find when we first start engaging with partners that there is an impressive analysis of everything that they want to change, that there are many things they think are wrong. But what is much harder for them is to be able to focus and identify where they are, as lawyers or academics, or as an NGO, where they can leverage influence and what they can actually do. I think that if people are quite clear about that they have a much better chance of having an impact with the work that they do. I also feel uncomfortable taking credit for what another organisation has done. After all they have done the work. We hope we might have helped inspire them a bit, mentor them a bit, helped with the process. But there will be many other influences on them as well. Especially in the context of a project I am hesitant to point at something and then say “we did that”. We are happy if partners demonstrate increased effectiveness to do what they want to do to improve the human rights situation.

AF: This kind of capacity building for individuals and organisations arguably could be done not just by The Rights Practice but principally by any foreign organisations that engages with China. Do you have some specific ideas how civil society engagement, participation and human rights could be mainstreamed in the more conventional development projects or international cooperation projects with China?

NM: I am sure that more could be done. We have not had the time to really look into it, but I think we take some of our approach and methodology from the development NGOs and the way they work. In this respect we may differ from other organisations which work on the rule of law. In our human rights capacity building we are very much driven by context. We are not just delivering training on an international convention, like the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. For us the question always is “what does this mean for China”? What does it mean for people working in China? How can we make it real and relate it to day-to-day practice? I think you could mainstream specific ideas such as civil society engagement, participation and human rights across many areas of engagement with China. You can share your philosophy and approach on how you are trying to do your work. You can also reflect on the kinds of values that guide your work. We are part of a network of British NGOs working in development, who are trying to improve their effectiveness; this has been helpful in reflecting on the way we work in China. I think that there is a growing body of relevant experience out there, but perhaps those of us working on China are less used to sharing practice with people working in other countries. This maybe because we fall into a trap of Chinese ‘exceptionalism’, but I think it is a shame.

In Brief

An interview with Nicola Macbean, Founder and Director of The Rights Practice, as part of the “Thinking Strategically about Civil Society Assistance in China” project.
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