Pareto Principle and the United Nations
The PDT staff in New York held a fundraiser for Timor Leste last week. It went until about 4 am, which is remarkable, since it was a Wednesday night. Even more remarkable, all the staff were in the office bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the next morning. Anyway, there were several UN staff at the event and in speaking with them I was reminded of the axiom “Ninety percent of the work in the UN is done by 10% of the people.”
If you’ve worked around Turtle Bay or in a peacekeeping mission you’ve heard and seen this. In most organizations there are people who stand out for their ingenuity, perseverance, and personal drive. Within the context of the United Nations, which also has more than its fair share of unmotivated people, those who do work hard appear as superstars. And here is the fascinating thing: this off-hand saying, passed around the halls of the Secretariat like a piece of cynical folk wisdom, actually exists, is widely observed, and has a name. Economists call it the Pareto Principle.
It was originally proposed by a business management guru at the turn of the 20th century, who believed that 80% of the effects were due to 20% of the causes. He named it after Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian engineer and sociologist, who had noted that (circa the 1800s) 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the families. Interestingly, the same observation has been made by the UNDP regarding global distribution of wealth, namely that 20% of the world’s population controls 80% of the wealth.
The degree to which the Pareto Principle is exhibited, in land or wealth distribution for example, is measured by the Theil Index. If 50% of the land is owned by 50% of the people, you have rough equilibrium with a Theil number of 0. If 80% is owned by 20%, the Theil number approaches 1. In the case of the United Nations, if we are to believe the saying that 90% of the work is done by 10% of the people, you get a Theil number of 1.76, which suggests a significant imbalance and a work environment that is unstable. (Sound familiar to any of you UN staffers out there?)
The Pareto Principle is also called the “Law of the Vital Few”. The higher the Theil index, the more vital those few become. I was reminded of this at the fundraiser. Some of the UN staff there I have known for a long time. They are among the smartest folks I’ve met, and their reputation is well known for being behind the UN’s few but important reforms and successes recently. In fact, if some of you reading this currently work in DPKO, I’m sure you could guess their names. Every time there is a crisis, be it Timor, or Afghanistan, or Haiti, these are the folks who arrive first, the UN’s “A Team”. They get things done, they do it well, then they move on to the next disaster or war or crisis and hand off to the “B Team”, otherwise known as the other 90% of the UN. That’s usually when things begin to go off the rails.
Which is why the Pareto Principle is an important problem for the UN. When most of your success is coming from a precious few of your staff, it tells you two things:
- It isn’t doing a very good job in selecting staff if 90% of them are dead weight. The personnel problems of the UN are legion and infamous, and its Theil number is a direct result of this.
- The UN’s “vital few”, its most important staff, are at risk of burning out. When the same people are being called upon again and again to set up new missions or fix broken ones, they get worn down and eventually leave prematurely.
The Pareto Principle is not unique to the United Nations. In fact, every organization manifests it to some degree or another. But it is acute in the UN and the effects are greater. So how do we increase the number of the “Vital Few”? I really don’t know. At PDT we are developing some project ideas to support them. For example, we are trying to fund fellowships that would allow the UN’s best and brightest to take a year’s leave to catch their breath, and share their ideas. We’re also looking at mechanisms that would make it easier for the UN to find and deploy new staff from other industries who can provide the same level of ingenuity and effectiveness. But it’s an uphill battle, and in the meantime the lonely 10% continue to work beyond their breaking point to keep the UN standing. Here’s to them.