At last we have a roadmap. On 25 September, at a special event of the General Assembly, UN member states established a path and process for setting the post-2015 global development agenda. After an extended sequence of significant reports and recommendations over the past year, a short and matter-of-fact outcome document forged some core agreements, finessed some ongoing debates, and confirmed a basic timetable for the coming two years.

Many of the most important agreements were procedural. All countries agreed that the formal intergovernmental negotiations will start in September 2014 and will culminate in a summit of heads of state and government in September 2015. The word “summit” has a specifically elevated meaning in UN jargon, so this represents top-tier importance for the international system.

The General Assembly also commissioned Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to pull together “the full range of inputs” and to present a synthesis report before the end of 2014. Outsiders might consider this mandate trivial, but it represents a major de-escalation of intra-UN tensions. Following a series of intensive political debates, many General Assembly members have felt a need to remind the world that the Secretary-General works for them rather than vice versa. The mandate also provides clear space for Ban Ki-moon to make direct recommendations for post-2015, similar to Kofi Annan’s 2000 We the Peoples report, which helped to inform the landmark Millennium Declaration.

On matters of substance, countries made stepwise progress. They asserted poverty eradication as “the central imperative” of a post-2015 agenda, a subtle nod to continuing the core elements of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). But they also called for a “coherent approach” that “integrates in a balanced manner” the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development, “working towards a single framework and set of Goals” applicable to all countries. This amounts to strategic ambiguity around whether the poverty and environmental sustainability agendas will be pursued through a unified or parallel set of goals. In plain English, “It will be nice if we can arrive at a single set of goals that applies to everyone, but we don’t know whether we will get there.”

Underpinning the universality debate is the hot-button concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities”. All countries have agreed to the concept but still fight bitterly about what it means in practice. At the core of cores, it asks the extent to which developing countries should pay a different price for fighting climate change and related problems compared to the rich countries that caused them in the first place.

A related debate pertains to peace, security and various components of governance. Many have critiqued the MDGs for their top-line agnosticism on issues such as human rights and the rule of law. The question is how to set measurable targets that all countries, ranging from China to the United States to Brazil and Nigeria, will agree to. The new outcome document agrees that a post-2015 framework should “promote” these things, but does not commit to set targets around them.

Finally, the General Assembly agreed that the key responsibilities over the coming year are delegated to its open working group on sustainable development goals plus a targeted expert group on “sustainable development financing”, both of which will need to make their recommendations before formal negotiations begin next September. Whatever the final composition of any post-2015 goals, at this stage the biggest unresolved issues hinge on decisions of economic policy and development finance, so the expert group will likely form a fulcrum for intergovernmental breakthroughs. It is co-chaired by Ambassador Pertti Majanen of Finland and former Nigerian Finance Minister Mansur Muhtar. If they can achieve the robust engagement of finance ministries and investment leaders around the world, they will have a strong chance of success.

The world has never experienced such an intensive and broad-ranging intergovernmental process towards the confirmation of an agreed global agenda. Its multi-layered nature risks alienating outsiders who lack the time or inclination to master specialized diplomatic procedures. Fortunately, the General Assembly has also called for an inclusive approach that extends beyond traditional interactions with civil society and national parliaments and also includes local authorities, scientific communities, and the private sector. More than a million people around the world expressed their views over the past year. Empowered by the newly clarified timetable, hopefully hundreds of millions more will have the chance to share their perspective over the coming two years too. 

John McArthur is a Senior Fellow at the United Nations Foundation and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.

Image: The UN flag is outside its headquarters in New York. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton