Dedicated to mobilizing change: CIVICUS Unites for global impact under the leadership of Secretary General Lysa John and Chief Officer of Evidence and Engagement Mandeep Tiwana, pioneering a global movement for change in pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Defending people power and striving to promote excluded voices — this is the mission of CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organizations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world. With over 15,000 members in 188 countries, CIVICUS works together to monitor violations of fundamental civil liberties, name the perpetrators, and strengthen the power of people to organize by supporting an accountable, effective, and innovative civil society.
“Through empathy and solidarity for people thousands of miles away, we create a freer and more sustainable future by building an inter-generational movement for change.” — CIVICUS
At the forefront of CIVICUS’ mission is Secretary General Lysa John and Chief Officer of Evidence and Engagement, Mandeep Tiwana who form part of CIVICUS’ Senior Leadership Team. Lysa John brings two decades of unwavering commitment to human rights and global mobilization. Her journey began in India, where she worked with grassroots organizations to fight urban poverty and later led cross-national campaigns for government accountability. Prior to joining CIVICUS, she served as Director of Outreach for the UN High-Level Panel on the Sustainable Development Goals and Director of Global Campaigns at Save the Children, which shaped her commitment to activism from the grassroots to the global level. Mandeep, a human rights lawyer, advocates for civil society freedoms such as expression and peaceful assembly and has a notable track record with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. He currently leads CIVICUS’ mission to defend civil liberties and promote democratic values at the UN Headquarters in New York.
Together, Lysa and Mandeep give us an insight into their work as they Unite to Act on the SDGs by advocating for the rights and freedoms of people around the world:
Building a sustainable future for all means taking action today and flipping the current global narrative on everything from climate change and gender inequality to food insecurity. Zooming in on one priority, what challenge speaks to you the most and how are you and CIVICUS uniting to act for the SDGs?
In recent years, since the conceptualization of the SDGs, various crises have hindered our progress towards these goals. The pandemic and the escalating impact of climate change have disproportionately affected already disadvantaged countries. At CIVICUS, we emphasize that realizing the SDGs hinges on the full participation of civil society. However, the stark reality since the adoption of the SDGs has been a global assault on civic freedoms.
Data from the CIVICUS Monitor, our research initiative tracking civic space conditions in 197 countries, reveals that only about three percent of the global population lives in countries where civic freedoms are widely respected. Common attacks include restrictions on civil society organizations’ ability to receive and utilize funds, severely limiting their capacity to contribute to SDG implementation, government monitoring, and advocating for accelerated progress. This limitation of civic space impacts not only SDG 16 and 17, which directly concern civil society and civic freedoms, but also all other goals, from poverty reduction to ecosystem protection.
At CIVICUS, we are actively mobilizing to support the SDGs through various means. We participate in coalitions like Action for Sustainable Development, a group dedicated to driving sustainable development progress. This platform includes over 3,000 organizations and activists from more than 155 countries, mainly from the global south, all committed to realizing a transformative agenda. Through our involvement in this platform and in collaboration with civil society organizations and activists, we advocate for the right to participate in SDG monitoring and strive to provide practical joint recommendations to ensure no one is left behind.
Additionally, we work at the national level, mobilizing civil society organizations and supporting their participation and monitoring through the Voluntary National Review process. Collaborating with the stakeholder forum in partnership with UN DESA, we’ve developed an advocacy toolkit aimed at influencing the post-2015 development agenda. This toolkit guides civil society and other stakeholders in advocating at national, regional, and international levels to support the SDGs’ achievement.
This year marks the half-way point to Agenda 2030 and yet indicators show that progress on the SDGs is lagging. Only about 12% of the Goals are currently on track while close to 50% are moderately or severely off track. What do you want to see happen right now in your sector that can contribute to inverting this negative trend and putting us back on the right path?
One crucial aspect of change involves reimagining international financial institutions, notably the IMF and World Bank. These institutions have faced allegations of hindering sustainable development rather than facilitating it. Transformative impacts could be achieved if they were dedicated to addressing the climate crisis and realizing the SDGs. Upcoming events like the G20 Summit in India (September), two high-level UN General Assembly summits on the SDGs and financing for development (September), and COP 28 (November-December) offer a potential roadmap for change, including recommendations on loss and damage finance.
As we reach the midpoint of the SDG journey, it’s vital for states and all stakeholders to recognize that the SDGs yield tangible benefits in people’s daily lives. Adequate financing is essential, and states must acknowledge civil society’s role in scrutinizing development decisions and assisting marginalized groups. It’s concerning that some governments advocating for SDG financing are repressing civil society. States should adopt a broader perspective and commit to collaborating with civil society before it’s too late.
The importance of involving civil society, as recognized in the SDGs, echoes through international commitments on development and financing. The UN Secretary-General’s 2020 Call to Action on Human Rights emphasized the connection between civic space and Agenda 2030. As we reach this critical midpoint for Agenda 2030, recognizing civil society’s role in SDG monitoring is crucial. Some commitments in the SDGs (e.g., SDG 16.7, SDG 16.10, and SDG 17.17) are essential for transparency, accountability, and public participation. However, existing indicators are inadequate. Complementary indicators assessing the protection of core civic freedoms are needed due to the direct link between the deterioration of SDG 16 targets and civic space restrictions. For instance, Target 16.10 indicators do not directly measure freedom of association, assembly, and expression. Developing new indicators or expanding existing ones is necessary to provide a detailed picture and enable specific risk mitigation strategies to reverse the negative trend.
Despite some discouraging news on SDG progress, we are nonetheless hopeful that, when united for action, we can affect positive change. And we know this just by looking at the thousands of application submissions we receive each year for our UN SDG Action Awards, which celebrate mobilizers, inspirers, and changemakers. Which individual or initiative inspires you to take action and continue to work towards a better future for all?
Several inspiring individuals and initiatives stand out, with Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados leading the way in SDG financing. Her prominent role at COP 27, the latest global climate summit, focused on reshaping the global financial system to enhance the capacity of institutions like the World Bank to support climate resilience. COP 27’s commitment to establishing a fund for compensating climate change-induced loss and damage, a persistent demand from civil society and global south states, underscores the increasing urgency of financing strategies for adaptation, emissions reductions, and loss and damage.
In April, a joint initiative called the Bridgetown Initiative 2.0 was launched in collaboration between the UN and the Barbados government. This initiative advocates for a large-scale SDG stimulus package to assist countries grappling with debt and liquidity challenges in their SDG investments. Furthermore, it emphasizes the need for substantial long-term reforms in the international financial system.
Innovation is key to ensuring that our sustainable future is also inclusive. What are the novel trends and opportunities that you think will be game-changing for SDG action?
In various national and international settings, civil society and individuals have been denied participation in decision-making processes, despite the direct impact of these decisions on them. These decisions are closely tied to matters affecting SDG implementation. Despite limited opportunities for involvement, women in Afghanistan, for instance, have innovatively protested indoors or online in the face of a challenging Taliban-led regime.
Similarly, when civil society and activists faced restrictions in participating in crucial UN events, they organized protests near the UN headquarters. Civil society conducted numerous events addressing critical issues like corporate accountability, inclusive governance, and development financing, while also highlighting the SDGs in sideline meetings during the UNGA. A notable example is the Global Peoples Assembly, uniting 1300 civil society members to demand urgent action on SDGs, focusing on gender equality, climate and environmental justice, and human rights.
Civil society remains a powerful advocate against climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss, utilizing various tactics from protests and direct action to legal actions and global advocacy. The urgency for action was underscored in 2022 by extreme weather events, including devastating floods in Pakistan.
In 2022, the COP27 climate summit made significant progress by initiating a fund for compensating global south countries for climate change-induced loss and damage, a long-standing civil society demand. Additionally, a major summit saw states committing to a new global biodiversity framework to protect planetary assets and halt destructive cycles.
For many, the quest for an equitable and sustainable future starts from within. What has been a key turning point in your life? What have you learned from this that gives you hope for the current turning point we find ourselves in?
The journey to individual freedoms begins with our refusal to accept unfair treatment in various life settings. My mother’s determination to challenge societal norms, advocating women’s education and careers despite marriage and motherhood pressures, significantly shaped my identity and goals. Moreover, my involvement in grassroots mobilization has reinforced my belief in our innate capacity to aspire and improve. Justice is a universal human value, even in repressive societies, and history shows that the drive for equity and dignity is unstoppable. Across national campaigns such as ‘Nine is Mine’, an activism campaign for 9% of India’s GDP to be spent on health and education and global initiatives such as CIVICUS’ ‘Stand As My Witness’ campaign for the release of prisoners of conscience, I see that people across all walks of life understand the value of speaking up for the greater good. Through empathy and solidarity, we can build a freer and more sustainable future across generations.