What defines the success of large infrastructure megaprojects? Such investments typically represent a significant percentage of a country’s gross national product, involve multiple public and private stakeholders, and pose complex integration challenges. They are undertaken under conditions of great uncertainty as the demand for public services is often speculative, and the climatic conditions to which the facilities will be exposed, unclear. They are also subject to significant internal and external political influences and can be a magnet for corruption.

These megaprojects are therefore high-risk endeavors.

But they can also play a catalytic role in stimulating economic growth, creating jobs, and improving the prosperity of all citizens, including the most vulnerable.

A benevolent government should aim to deliver as many positive transformational benefits as possible from these megaprojects, both in the short run and in the long term. For all these reasons, policy makers must select very carefully the criteria that define their success.

There are two ways to approach the issue. The first one postulates that a project must be considered a success if it is delivered within budget, on time, and in accordance with the required specifications. This is the narrow quantitative approach. It implies a general consensus among stakeholders, encourages depoliticization, and tends to approach problems through the prism of organizational optimization that can be solved logically by a single decision-maker.

MegaprojectsThe second approach is more holistic. It defines success using a broader set of criteria, including efficiency, effectiveness, equity, and relevance with government reform programs in terms of economic, social, environmental, and territorial outcomes. This approach fosters transparency in the decision-making process all along the project cycle. It links policy, planning and appraisal criteria to project delivery, and differentiates between output and outcome. It is more complex, but also more thorough.

A recent paper written by Juan Alberti of the Inter-American Bank entitled “Planning and Appraisal Recommendations for Megaproject Success” weights the pros and cons of both approaches. The paper argues that the way in which the success of a megaproject is measured leads to different recommendations for the planning and appraisal stages of the project cycle. The definition of success can either help to frame problems or hinder their framing.