Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Conceptualizing International Development Project Sustainability through a Discursive Theory of Institutionalization

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Version 1 2021-11-10, 05:51
posted on 2023-03-14, 23:26 authored by Jackson, Elizabeth C.

Every year billions of dollars are spent on international development projects. Many of these projects, while initially appearing to be successful, lack the systems and resources that would contribute to their long term success, and collapse once outside assistance is withdrawn; they are unsustainable. This issue of project sustainability is of critical importance to the field of international development. This research uses a case study to explore how international development organizations understand and enact sustainability. Key questions that were asked in approaching this topic were: what makes a project sustainable, and how do international development organizations manage for the sustainability of their projects? This research looks to institutional theory in the attempt to shed light on the process of sustainable development. I endeavour to demonstrate how conceptualizing the process of sustainable development as a process of institutionalization may be of assistance in implementing sustainable development projects. This premise forms the foundation of my thesis. The theoretical basis of this research can be located in the work of organizational scholar Nelson Phillips, who asserts that institutionalization, the process of institutional formation, should be conceived of as a discursive process. I conjecture that in order for a discourse to produce an institution, it must address three key institutional concerns as described in W. Richard Scott's theory of three institutional pillars. This theory holds that in order for an institution to be stable, it must have foundations in three recognized areas of organizational life: rules, values, and culture. I use critical discourse analysis to examine if and how these institutional concepts feature in organizational texts of sustainable development. In order to study organizational texts on sustainable development, it was necessary to gain access to a representative development organization. New Zealand's international aid and development programme, NZAID, was identified as the ideal organization for this study, as its formal commitment to internationally recognized development agreements means that its practices should be representative of the practices of other similar organizations. Through interviews, observations and document analysis I have studied its approach to sustainable development, and how that approach continues down the chain of development to its partners and stakeholders within two projects in a province of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Data was collected at NZAID in Wellington, as well as at NZAID's office in Port Moresby, PNG, and among two of NZAID's development partners in rural PNG. The findings of this research demonstrate that while themes of institutionalization are already present to some degree within international development organizations' sustainable development discourse, that discourse and the projects that it informs would benefit from more overt engagement with the principles of institutionalization. My research contributes to development practice by exploring how sustainability goals are formulated and diffused through organizational discourse, specifically between varied environments and organizational actors. It offers practical suggestions for the improvement of the process of sustainable development. This research also contributes theoretically to organization studies through its exploration of how institutional theory can be applied to better understand the process sustainable development.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Master of Management Studies

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

Victoria Management School


Jones, Deborah