Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition, book review

Bent Flyvbjerg, Nils Bruzelius and Werner Rothengatter


“Never in the history of humankind have we built more or more expansive, infrastructure projects and never have such projects been more central to establishing what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls ‘independent from Space’ and Bill Gates ‘frictionless capitalism’. Yet when actual versus predicted performance of megaprojects are compared the picture is often dismal. We have documented in this book that:

  •  Cost overruns of 50% to 100% in real terms are common in megaprojects; overruns above 100% are not uncommon;
  • Demand forecast that are wrong by 20% to 70% compared with actual development are common;
  • The extend and magnitude of actual environmental impacts of projects are often very different from forecast impacts. Post auditing is neglected;
  • The substantial regional, national and sometimes international development effects commonly claimed by project promoters typically do not materialise, or they are so diffuse that researchers cannot detect them;
  •  Actual project viability typically does not correspond with forecast viability, the latter being brazenly over-optimistic.”



The aim is to decrease the risk of government, taxpayers and private investors being led- or misled, as often turns out the case – repeatedly to commit billions of dollars to underperforming projects.



Causes: more and bigger projects, lack of accountability in the decision making process, (“no skin in the game”), Promoters have actually been able to dodge risk and accountability. The tactical under-and overestimation of effects in the initial stages. Rent seeking behaviour and the associated ‘appraisal optimism’- are not in the interest of those whose money is put at risk, be the taxpayers or private investors. Nor are they in the interest of those concerned with environment, safety, democracy and the public interest.



Cures: 1)Risk and the accountability should be more centrally placed in megaproject decision making than is currently the case. Not only just better and more rational information, but also the right checks and balances are required to ensure accountability. New methodologies for risk management such as the most likely development analysis (MLD), break-even and worst case scenarios should be combined with the mentioned accountability.


2) Governments often play various roles such as promoters, guardian of public interests, which results in a conflict of interest in which accountability suffers. Borderlines of public and private involvement should be redrawn, shifting the risk form the public to the private sector and establishing a substantial clearer role for governments by means of arm’s length principal and shifting government involvement from project to promotion to formulation and auditing of public-interest objectives to be met by megaprojects.

There is little evidence that efficiency and democracy are trade-offs for megaproject decision making quite the opposite.


3) The authors propose, four basic instruments of accountability to be employed in megaproject decision making:

i) Transparency: Stakeholder involveme

nt and participation of the public sector. Against the convention argument that public participation slows down decision making and results into suboptimal decision making, mega projects that have tried to get by without publicness and participation have often into such heavy opposition that the decision making process were destabilised and second-best solution procedure and outcome forced upon actors and projects.


ii) Performance specification: The use of performance specification implies goal-driven approach to megaproject decision making, instead of the conventional technical solution driven one. The use of a performance specification approach means that as far as possible, all requirements with respect to a possible project are to be decided before considering various technical alternatives for the project before appraising it. Focus on the ends rather than the means. Forces stakeholder into a constructive role, and undermines the creditability of criticism directed at megaprojects simply because they happen to be megaprojects.


iii) Explicit formulation of regulatory regime, should be defined upfront as far as possible and will make governments carefully review issues and identify all costs before decisions are made. Furthermore, the choice of the regulatory regime will influence the risk of the project and both costs and risk should be central to any feasibility study and appraisals. Finally, if part of the financing of the project is to be mobilized (as proposed by the authors) from risk capital, this could only take place if the regulatory regime is set out, and risk which are of political nature are identified, and where relevant, as far as possible eliminated.


iv) Involvement of risk capital, by requiring that a substantial commitment in the form of risk capital is made, the ordinary citizen will be required to carry no, or only limited risk. Involvement of risk capital will ensure a high degree of involvement by the lenders during the final design construction and operation of a project and more effectively monitoring. As a consequence, better cost control can be expected. The authors propose two alternative models  for megaproject decision making. One based on the state-owned enterprise approach (SOE), the other on the build-operator transfer (BOT). Depending on the specific project one will be better than the other.



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