Last week saw hundreds of people gather for the UN General Assembly debates on the post-2015 agenda . Member states agreed on an outcome document that outlines the process for getting to an agreement. That will still take two years. First, a group of countries comprising the Open Working Group will consider what the agenda should be. They are expected to deliberate until February next year, and then negotiate a text during the summer to present to the 2014 General Assembly. Then, the Secretary-General will be tasked with presenting a draft for member states’ consideration and eventual agreement at the 2015 General Assembly.
So much for process. But what about substance? Already, some of the contours of the new agenda are emerging. It will be a single agenda, merging the efforts to eradicate poverty and to promote sustainable development. It will be a universal agenda, with actions to be taken by all countries. It will probably include consideration of personal safety, of strengthening institutions, and of infrastructure, jobs and growth, none of which are currently part of the Millennium Development Goals. Gender equality is likely to be emphasized more. There is much talk of a new global partnership, although that means making progress on things like agricultural subsidies, the global trade talks, and other international agreements on which progress has stalled. These themes have emerged in a number of reports that were considered by the UN at various special events last week. Among those reports is the report of the High-Level Panel  on the post-2015 agenda (Disclaimer: I was the Lead Author for that report.)
Much of what happened last week is to be expected from a major UN event. There were side events focusing on specific topics. There was a negotiation over language (the phrase “common but differentiated responsibilities” is included in the outcome document, and in return there was agreement to mention issues like peace and governance). But the biggest surprise was the repeated reference to making sure that the post-2015 agenda is based on evidence.
The Secretary-General started this ball rolling by insisting on the important role of science and of academics in the new agenda. But many others echoed the sentiment. One report, Investments to End Poverty , provides independent, reliable, accessible information and data on poverty and resource flows to create an “unstoppable logic” for action. (Disclaimer: I have a working relationship with the authors of this report.) There was a standing-room only side event on improving statistics for development, with the rallying cry of “statisticians unite”. Member states commented on the need for trial and error to move from collective intelligence on development to collective action. The UK announced it would contribute one billion pounds to the Global Fund for Aids, TB and Malaria because of the proven impact of Global Fund programs in saving lives.
This focus on evidence, and the growing pressures to link funding to proven impact, could be hugely significant. The High-Level Panel report coined the term “a data revolution”, to draw attention to the pressing need to ensure no one gets left behind as development occurs. But it also serves as a reminder that the quality of the information on which many development interventions are based still leaves much to be desired. Considerable progress has been made, no doubt. And new methods like randomized controlled trials provide solid foundations for understanding what works, while new tools of data collection, like SMS surveys, direct beneficiary feedback and a range of “big data” can revolutionize how we collect data. But there is still a long way to go in understanding the nature and prevalence of poverty around the world and the domestic and external resources that go into addressing it. The data revolution is a call for transparency and accountability. If taken seriously, this could transform development and perhaps be even more significant than the text of the post-2015 agenda that is being negotiated in New York.