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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.

Vilfredo Pareto: Engineer, Sociologist, Economist, Philosopher, and predictor of UN dysfunction

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.

Henry Theil: Econometrician and measurer of UN dysfunction

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tom Murphy, Scott Gilmore, Eileen Guo, Shannon Sortland, Scott Gilmore and others. Scott Gilmore said: They say 10% of the people in the UN do 90% of the work. It's called the Pareto Principle. And it's a serious problem. […]

  2. Edward Rees says:

    This could simply not be any more correct.

  3. Karen says:

    – How will your project be designed?
    – How will the UN’s best and brightest be selected? This is an organization full of strings wth many favours to return. Don’t be surprise if the deadwoods get chosen.
    – How will the UN make recruitment easier? Maybe the UN should consider bringing back the recruitment exercise to select Field Servicesin the 1970s-80s where it includes practical tests ie electrical engineers had to past the test to assemble a whole circuit before being employed.
    – Also, those lonely 10% you dicussed above were heavily prosecuted by the OIOS during the DPKO 2006-2007 witch-hunt. It only signals that 1) hard work & dedication don’t pay 2) if you don’t do anything, how can you do anything wrong? How will we addres this?

  4. Thank you Pareto Principle for validating my first person story, after over 20 years of service to and within the UN system. Increasingly, I continue to learn that life; i.e., the essence of it doesn’t exist within its polarities but rather is immersed within its relativity. While it is undoubtedly clear that there may be short-comings within the UN recruitment process, to say that it isn’t doing a good job at it is a ‘gross over-simplification.’ Having been a part of recruitment panels as well as subject to the recruitment process, my experience is this: the recruitment process is essentially a linear one that fails to capture the essence of the human being that will ultimately be required to work in hostile, volatile and work environments that deviate from the norm. Any UN staff member, especially one working in the field, isn’t merely doing a job, they are in service to humanity. Many of the decision makers responsible for devising the various resolutions that are then handed down to those in the field who are actually doing the work are so far removed from the reality of things as they transpire, their policies and procedures are irrelevant and non-applicable. As the writer Karen has also stated in her comments, the UN body whether we accept it or not, is by and large a political one and subsequently operates as such; i.e., paybacks, kickbacks and a whole range of maneuverings that are associated with the political game. Many outsiders are quick to judge and label the inadequacies of the system without any real understanding of what it takes to accomplish the lofty ideal of attainment and sustenance world peace — the ultimate goal of the UN Charter. There is no simple answer to resolving the Pareto Principle that continues to plague the UN. Certainly since I joined the system some 20 odd years ago, there has been vast improvement in some areas — moves towards UN Reform and One UN. On the other hand though, a great deal of work still remains to be done to support the humans who choose to give so much of themselves at the cost of their lives, families, etc. in the name of service. And at the end of the day, life is about choice. Some of those ‘lonely 10%’ choose to remain in this [self] victimised role because they know no other — and they remain a sad danger to themselves as well as the system — in as much as — perhaps even more so than the 90% who continue to milk the system for every penny that they can get — through education grant, rental subsidy, mobility allowance, home leave, etc., etc., etc. Ultimately and eventually, it comes down to the individual; the recruited AND the recruiter. If both do not share similar visions and values then there will ultimately be a dis-connect; i.e., the Pareto Principle.

  5. Scott Gilmore says:


    -The project design is still underway. Not surprisingly, we’re spending a lot of time talking to the UN’s “vital few” to make sure it fits their needs.
    -Agree. Which is why we are planning to conduct the fellowship selection process at arms length. All current UN staff will be able to apply, but the UN won’t be deciding who gets it.
    -The “Low Level Panel” had the best ideas to date on this, that I’ve seen. (, the UNDP has also implemented some recent reforms which are worth copying. Not surprisingly, those reforms were driven by one of the UN’s best and brightest.
    -Totally agree on the OIOS fiasco. There was a great story to be told there, how the OIOS went after the UN staff who cut corners to get things done in the UN’s bureaucratic maze, not to steal money. They didn’t hide their tracks because they weren’t trying to do anything criminal. Which meant the OIOS chose to nail them and not the actual criminals who made the effort to hide what they’d one.

  6. Scott Gilmore says:

    Nadine: Thanks for your views on this. Especially agree with: “the recruitment process is essentially a linear one that fails to capture the essence of the human being that will ultimately be required to work in hostile, volatile and work environments that deviate from the norm. “

  7. Karen says:

    It’ll be interesting to see the outcome of ‘All current UN staff will be able to apply’. How many supervisor/s will REALLY let their staff go for a whole 12 months and still allow them to return to their vacated post? Assuming we have ‘intelligent & HR-conscious supervisors’ now, in many organizations (UNICEF, for example), HR policy requires that staff re-apply alongside other candidates for a position upon returning from ‘special leave’. Best to factor this in when PDT designs the project.

    Noted that LLP’s HR recommendation esp on fast-track management stream and its worry on the average age of a P2 at 37. Equally take note that in 2009, UNDP implemented the Rank/Time in post policy (staff in hardship duty stations can only take on another position after having served in the current post for a min of 2 years and staff in non-hardship duty stations need to serve 4 years). While experience is important, it must be recognized that individuals have different learning curves. If one needs 2 years to learn something in a hardship duty station, send the chap home after 6 months – the chap could be hazard to himself! Recruitment should be based on merits, not based on how long a person stay in the previous post.

    Somebody ought to put a study together on the OIOS fiasco and its effect to staff and non-staff’s morale and ultimately HR output to the organization from 2006 to today. Some if not all of those staff are still considered ‘checkered’ to UN recruitment panels to this day. What a price to pay!

  8. Dr. Kurtz says:

    We have a similar problem at HRI, we had a meeting about it and realized that only representatives of the 10% were actually in the room. funny thing, this; we had more meetings after that and turns out it’s impossible to refer to the 90% in any other way than the third person.

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