A new study suggests that the United Nations' much-lauded Millennium Development Goals, which expire in the year 2015, did not accelerate developmental progress globally after they were announced in September 2000.
The study, which was done by a statistician with the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) while on a two-month sabbatical, was published independently this weekend after the U.N. declined to released it.
"The general result was that there was no trend in statistically significant accelerations in the MDG indicators after 2000," writes author Howard Friedman in the study.
U.N. spokeswoman Vannina Maestracci distanced the agency from the research on Monday in an emailed statement, saying it "does not represent the United Nations or UNFPA's position."
Friedman says he wanted to examine the development goals because he and other staff members at the U.N. "had been talking about how much effort has been put into not just the current MDGs but also the post 2015 MDG discussion."
"But there hadn't really been a rigorous effort to assess MDG progress," he says.
Friedman's effort, which is statistical in nature, examined a number of indicators that measure progress towards the U.N.'s eight Millennium Development Goals, which include wiping out extreme poverty, achieving universal primary education and promoting gender equality.
About half of the development indicators he examined showed no acceleration in progress from 1992-2008, and about a third of the indicators showed accelerations in progress before the goals were even declared in 2000.
In part, this may be because the global community was already focused on problems like poverty and universal education before the goals were set forward, something Friedman acknowledges in the study and says may explain why few colleagues expressed surprise when they saw the findings.
"We've been making progress in a lot of these areas for some time," says Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development who previously authored a paper on what the goals had achieved. "But what the study suggests and evidence suggests is that we need to be careful at assuming how much we can speed progress in these areas going forward."
Kenny says the lesson learned is the U.N.'s goals should be ambitious but not unrealistic.
To wit, some of the world's poorest countries are on track to achieve most of the goals as the 2015 deadline approaches, while other countries – particularly in sub-Saharan Africa – don't seem to be on course at all.
Maestracci at the U.N. argues the goals have "shown that focused global development efforts can make a difference" but acknowledges that progress has been uneven in some countries.
It's important to note, however, that the study did not examine all indicators of the eight development goals, excluding for example, indicators on maternal mortality. Friedman says this is because all the necessary data points on maternal mortality weren't available,
But Stephan Klasen, a professor of development economics at the University of Göttingen in Germany , says using a statistical analysis to measure the goals' success is where the paper's weakness lies.
"One has to see the MDGs not as a world-central planning tool that was agreed on and then the day after the whole world geared into action," he says. "That's not how one should think about the MDGs and whether they were a success or not."
Indeed, the goals were born out of a simple promise by world leaders to do their part to address the social and economic problems in their countries. The goals have been criticized for being hard to measure or evaluate, but development experts say that's because the goals themselves are aspirational. There is no penalty for a country that fails to meet them, as much of the idea behind the goals was to reframe the development debate.
Kenny says in that regard, the goals have been a resounding success.
"It was a nonbinding document signed by leaders in a room in New York. And it's had a big impact," he says. "No one talked about maternal mortality before, it became a goal, and people started talking about that."
This post has been updated to include a response to the study from economist Jeffrey Sachs, who is the U.N. Secretary-General's Special Adviser on the Millennium Development Goals.