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."
But both Kenny and Klasen say the U.N. should have published the study, which Maestracci says the agency did not do because the U.N. Population Fund "does not publish or endorse work done" by employees on sabbatical.
"This is exactly the kind of thing that the U.N. as a family ought to be thinking about," says Kenny. "What did the MDGs really achieve?"
John McArthur, a senior fellow at the U.N. Foundation as well as the Brookings Institution, and the former CEO of Millennium Promise, an international NGO devoted to achieving the development goals, says the study reflects at some level what the world has achieved with the MDGs: "a mixed record."
"The MDGs are not a monolith, not some big behemoth that were dropped out of the sky and implemented, there was a more of a cascade effect of breakthroughs that led to more breakthroughs," McArthur says.
As the 2015 deadlines approaches, the U.N. says it will continue to examine how well countries are doing in achieving the goals. Friedman hopes his analysis will help those in the field better examine which countries have made progress or which are lagging – and why.
"If that can be examined, we can get a better connection between what programs were being implemented and scaled up, and what the data shows us about their success," he says. "This research is just the start."
Economist Jeffrey Sachs, who serves as the U.N. Secretary-General's Special Adviser on the Millennium Development Goals, has issued a response to the study that was shared with U.S. News Thursday afternoon. Sachs argues that while progress has varied by region, the goals very clearly accelerated progress in reducing poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.
“In the case of Sub-Saharan Africa, economic development was basically stalled before the year 2000. Economic growth was low; the poverty rate was high and not falling; and disease burdens were enormous and increasing in the case of malaria and HIV/AIDS,” he writes. “The MDGs played an important role, of course together with other factors, in helping to reverse these adverse trends.”
Sachs also argues that Friedman’s research is “misleading” because the study aggregates data across regions, and because it did not examine all indicators.
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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.