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My research centers on the interplay between citizen initiatives and state policy and practice, and the implications of this dynamic for development and governance. Ordinary citizens are increasingly taking individual and collective initiative to address development challenges. Citizens of authoritarian regimes--and many democracies--struggle to have a voice in development and policy. How do citizen initiatives impact state policy and practice? What social and political dynamics foster citizen engagement? 


I engage in political ethnography and participatory action research to analyze such varied groups as China’s rural grassroots NGOs, minority university students in Yunnan, International NGOs in China, and teachers groups in Beijing. I also use qualitative methods to study the interactions of these groups with an authoritarian state. My research identifies how these citizen initiatives interact with state practice, shifting policy and giving rise to new governance practices. 


I have explored these questions by studying how Chinese grassroots NGOs influence policy, how cross-sector knowledge communities generate knowledge that intersects with the policy process, education and development policy in China's ethnic minority regions, and how International NGOs intermediate China's overseas aid and investment and in its Belt and Road Initiative. My work has been published in International Affairs, World Development, Studies in Comparative Development, VOLUNTAS, and the Journal of Chinese Political Science

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In an authoritarian system that seems to offer limited opportunities for grassroots participation, citizen initiatives can coalesce into organizational forms allowing local groups to impact policy and local governance.

This project involved a structured study of state-NGO relations in Ningxia, Yunnan and Hebei, employing political ethnography and a case-oriented comparative approach across six subnational units. Findings draw on data from 122 interviews with local officials and grassroots NGOs, original survey data, extensive field observations carried out between 2009 and 2012; a review of NGO materials, bureaucratic documents and participation in NGO workshops and conferences. Research focused on a little understood segment of China's growing civil society--small, indigenous grassroots groups carrying out development projects in mostly rural and semi-urban settings. 

The study uncovers a distinctive type of state-NGO relationship— termed reciprocal engagement—and explains variation in reciprocal outcomes. It also explores the effects of such engagement, finding that even grassroots NGOs can impact policy when citizens, nonprofit groups and government actors model policy innovations. 

Relevant publications:

Farid, May, and Hui Li. "Reciprocal Engagement and NGO Policy Influence on the Local State in China." VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 32, no. 3 (2021): 597-609.


Farid, May, and Chengcheng Song (2020). ‘Public Trust as a Driver of State-Grassroots NGO Collaboration in China.’ Journal of Chinese Political Science: 1-23.


Farid, M. (2019). Advocacy in Action: China’s Grassroots NGOs as Catalysts for Policy Innovation. Studies in Comparative International Development, 54(4), 528-549.  


An inquiry into the nexus between education and development in ethnic minority regions

This project represented a unique opportunity to spearhead a four-year collaborative action-research project on behalf of China’s leading government policy think-tank, the State Council Development Research Center. Research involved assembling a team to carry out participant observation and action research projects in several Chinese provinces between 2012 and 2016, and provided a birds-eye view of the policy process. The project explored another form of state- society interaction, one that has proved to be a significant challenge in China’s development process: the interaction between state policy and ethnic populations in minority regions. The study shed light on various aspects of this interaction, exploring how individuals within minority communities and official agencies engaged in activities to promote the socioeconomic development of minority regions, whether as volunteers, rural cadres, teachers or entrepreneurs. In collaboration with research institutes and universities in minority regions, a subproject investigated career prospects for youth in minority areas.


Relevant publications:


Xingzou fuwu zhidao, jianzheng nengli tuibian: Yunnan shaoshu minzu diqu jiaoyu he fazhan xingdong yanjiu (Walking the path of service, witnessing the transformation of ability: Action-research on education and development in Yunnan’s ethnic minority regions), edited by Pu Lichun and May Farid. China Ethnic Publishing House. 

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Grassroots NGOs impact policy when citizens, nonprofit groups and government actors collectively generate knowledge.

In an era of unprecedented access to information and multiplying means of communication, what role does knowledge have in the policy making process, particularly knowledge generated by citizen groups and grassroots organizations?   Emerging research that explores these questions often centers on knowledge communities as carriers of knowledge to policy. In particular, two models--epistemic communities and communities of practice—attempt to account for knowledge generation by and with social actors. 

The project studies cases of emerging knowledge communities comprised of combinations of NGO staff, villagers, academics and officials interacting around specific policy issues, generating knowledge and spurring policy innovations. Each case illustrates the expansion of key theoretical constructs within the literature on knowledge communities. One case highlights the porous nature of sectoral boundaries in China and the resultant cross-sector communities that influence policy. Another suggests an expansion of the types of expertise constituting knowledge communities to include non-scientific sources of authority and reliable information about conditions at the grassroots. Yet another invites a broadening of knowledge production beyond ‘crafted policy documents’ to encompass the generation of knowledge in a variety of forms and by a range of actors.


The project identifies mechanisms by which knowledge intersects with power structures and is then diffused.  These findings on how grassroots actors are able to influence policy through knowledge communities are relevant to authoritarian systems perceived to lack the traditional channels for political participation, but also to political contexts in which channels for articulating the will of the people are not functioning as intended.

Relevant publications:

Farid, May and Lori Noguchi. 'Knowledge communities and policy influence in China.' World Development 150 (2022): 105737.


International NGOs operating in China are playing an important role as intermediaries in China's outbound aid and investment, highlighting the continuing role of Northern actors in South-South Cooperation.

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This project began as a study of the impact of the 2016 Overseas NGO Law on International NGOs operating in China. Field research uncovered growing participation of INGOs in China's outbound aid and investment. 

China’s ascendancy as a global development actor has significant implications for geostrategic dynamics and international development. While the push to ‘go out’ has been seen as a major strategy of the Chinese state, the actors are increasingly diversifying, including Chinese state agencies, businesses, and NGOs. We analyze the inconspicuous but important involvement of a global actor—International NGOs (INGOs)—in China’s globalizing strategy. Drawing on in- depth interviews, we develop an integrated framework for INGOs as intermediaries in China’s ‘going out’ strategy based on the content of intermediary support (tangible vs. intangible resources) and the function of the intermediary (bridging vs. initiating). These intermediary roles have implications for how INGOs navigate conflicts between their domestic work in China and their outbound efforts, INGO legitimacy as actors that promote global norms or as ambassadors of the Party-state, and the extent to which they facilitate Chinese expansion or shape China’s role as a global actor. Our findings shed light on how global civil society chooses to invest its significant material and discursive resources, and how global actors under authoritarianism internalize, resist, or promote its projects.

Relevant publications:

Farid, May, and Hui Li. "International NGOs as intermediaries in China's ‘going out’' strategy." International Affairs 97, no. 6 (2021): 1945-1962.

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