SDG16+ Champions of Change

The advocate championing citizen action and organizing to enable change


Champions of Change is an initiative started by the Pathfinders to highlight advocates who have made an impact in their communities and have helped to create peaceful, just and inclusive societies (SDG16+). It provides an opportunity to feature individuals, businesses, and organizations doing extraordinary things to empower and inspire members of their communities.

Lysa John is the Secretary General of CIVICUS, an organization that works to strengthen citizen action and civil society throughout the world. Lysa has worked on issues of governance accountability and social justice for more than two decades. Before joining CIVICUS, she worked with Save the Children International as their Global Campaigns and Advocacy Strategy Director, and previously served as Head of Outreach for the UN High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Agenda. She is the author of several reports and has been published by Earthscan, Outlook India and the Guardian.

We spoke with Lysa John to learn more about her work and what drives her:

What ignited your pursuit for more peaceful, just, and inclusive societies?

I have spent the last 27 years engaged with various aspects of civil society and human rights. This includes five years of studying ‘social work’ in India, followed by two decades of work focused on enabling local communities to influence and activate national and global policy priorities. My greatest inspiration in this period is witnessing how the leadership of groups that are traditionally excluded from decision-making spaces — children, women and youth from marginalized communities, people with disabilities — can radically transform the outcomes of even the most bureaucratic policy negotiations. Establishing strong norms and practices for open and just governance, including ways in which local communities can directly and consistently engage with individuals and institutions that are responsible for decision-making and resource allocation, is certainly one of the most significant contributions that civil society is known for and continues to make.

To achieve a peaceful, just, and inclusive world, what does success look like to you? And what are the key factors in achieving this vision?

87% of the world’s population currently lives in countries where civic space is closed, repressed or obstructed according to the 2020 findings of the CIVICUS Monitor. Worse still, a quarter of the world lives in contexts where they can be routinely arrested, attacked or even killed by state or non-state actors for exercising their fundamental freedoms. The protection of civic freedoms is critical to the achievement of a peaceful and inclusive world and is reflected in several aspects of the Sustainable Development Goals including SDG16.7 which calls for responsive, inclusive, and representative decision-making; SDG16.10 on public access to information and protection of fundamental freedoms; and SDG17.17 which includes an emphasis on civil society partnerships and resourcing strategies.

How does your work contribute for the SDG16+ goals?

CIVICUS exists to strengthen civil society and citizen action across the world. The exercise of civic freedoms has a direct impact on issues of peace, justice, and inclusion. As we note in our civic space research, restrictions on the freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly are being actively used to stifle initiatives that call for greater accountability and transformative change from state or non-state actors. The absence of civic participation mechanisms undermines the foundations of open governance. In addition to eroding trust in public institutions, it triggers conflict and increases social exclusion due to the absence of genuine processes for dialogue and accountability.

How has COVID-19 impacted your work? Are there any lessons learned from the pandemic that you hope to apply in future work?

The past year has been replete with examples of how civil society, in all its diversity, has risen to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and taken action for communities and causes at a truly remarkable scale. And yet, we continue to work and operate in increasingly hostile environments. Our CIVICUS Monitor data shows that the detention of protesters and the excessive use of force against them are the most common tactics being used by governments to restrict the right to peaceful assembly. Censorship, surveillance, attacks on journalists and human rights defenders are other tactics against civil society that have been documented last year. Overall, there has been a distressing trend of governments using the global public health emergency to disproportionately curtail rights and dismantle democratic processes.

What advice do you have for those seeking to make a difference for a more peaceful, just, and inclusive world?

An empowered, networked, and well-resourced civil society is a public good that no country can do without. As we organize for future challenges — and with the possibility of a post-COVID world being finally within reach — it is critical that we integrate strategies to reinforce the relevance and resilience of civil society in all aspects of our work. An enabling environment for civil society — which includes access to public information channels, the removal of regulatory barriers, and the creation of long-term incentives for local giving and global solidarity — will be fundamental to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and the protection of human rights.

A study on government and civil society collaboration undertaken across 80 countries last year, titled ‘Rebuilding for Good’, provided us with excellent examples of the kind of infrastructure and investment we need for civil society to operate without restriction. We intend to use this analysis to design what an operating framework that supports a positive vision of civil society contribution and expand opportunities for publics, businesses, and governments to partner actively with citizens for change should look like across countries.