Kai Ostwald

Associate Professor

Relevant Thesis-Based Degree Programs



I am an associate professor in the School of Public Policy & Global Affairs and the Department of Political Science at the University of British Columbia. I am also the Director of UBC's Institute of Asian Research and the Associate Editor (Southeast Asia) for Pacific Affairs.

I conduct research on political and economic development, primarily in the Southeast Asian countries of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Myanmar. My work has appeared in numerous outlets and has been funded by SSHRC, NSF, IDRC, the Pacific Rim Research Program, and others.

Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision

Dissertations completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest dissertations.

Essays on the political economy of equality, development, and influence in Indonesia and Singapore (2023)

This dissertation consists of three chapters investigating different questions under the themes of politics, inequality, and development.Chapter 1 explores whether aid given to regions with greater political accountability is more effective at fostering development. Proposing a novel way to measure political accountability—the distribution of public infrastructure—I account for contextual factors like topography and initial development levels to examine how equitably roads, schools, and health facilities are distributed in Indonesia. I then test if aid generates more economic growth when provided to regions with more equal infrastructure distributions. I find aid has generally inconsequential effects on subsequent development, but greater public infrastructure inequality is associated with higher, not lower, aid efficacy. Chapter 2 explores a new source of soft power that I call the domestic halo effect, which reflects the perceived developmental success of a given country. Using an online survey experiment in Indonesia, I explore if the domestic success of China and the US increases the desire to emulate their institutional styles. They do. Reminders of China’s economic success enhanced preferences for centralized institutions, while respondents prompted on the US’s cultural achievements leaned most towards decentralization. Causal mediation analysis confirmed that this effect acts independently of previously theorized channels. I also find that whether respondents “like” a foreign power —a ubiquitous measure of soft power— does not correlate with institutional preferences, suggesting that concerns over China’s charm offensive shifting public opinion on foreign policies in their favor are potentially overblown. Chapter 3 then examines why those who qualify for social assistance choose not to take it up. Leveraging a comprehensive dataset in Singapore, I find there are potentially 4.5 times as many elderly households who qualify for help but do not receive it as those who do. In other words, a significant proportion of potentially eligible recipients in Singapore are not receiving aid. Further analysis of Singapore’s social assistance history and potential reasons driving this behavior suggest that past public narratives linger on through perceived social rules even after official positions change, pointing to the efficacy of community- and social network-based solutions in increasing take-up.

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Master's Student Supervision

Theses completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest theses.

Exploring organizational cultures affecting sustainability professionals’ motivation to implement sustainability : a study in Malaysia and Canada (2023)

Business organizations are increasingly pressured to move beyond conventional sustainable development approaches and embrace transformative change. Within these organizations, internal sustainability change agents play a crucial role in championing sustainability initiatives. These change agents operate within the landscape of organizational cultures, which significantly influence their motivations and actions. This study examines how organizational culture shapes the motivation of sustainability change agents and addresses two research questions: (1) Is there a significant relationship between organizational cultures and the motivation of sustainability professionals to implement sustainability? (2) What organizational culture factors motivate and demotivate sustainability change agents, and how do these factors differ between firms in Canada and Malaysia? To answer these questions, a combination of surveys and semi-structured interviews were conducted. Surveys were collected from 60 sustainability professionals in Canadian firms and 62 in Malaysian firms. Additionally, 17 semi-structured interviews were conducted with 8 sustainability professionals from Canadian firms and 9 from Malaysian firms. The empirical results reveal a prevailing sense of motivation among sustainability professionals, driven by the nine predefined organizational culture factors. These factors shape organizations' approaches and adaptation strategies to sustainability, influencing the types of challenges faced by sustainability professionals. Notably, organizational culture factors, such as long-term orientation, a unified sustainability goal, and supportive colleagues, consistently motivate sustainability professionals across both countries, underscoring their relevance to sustainability professionals as an occupation, regardless of their specific organizational context or country of origin. The interviews also revealed country-specific motivating factors. In Canadian firms, aspiring to an egalitarian culture, inclusive leadership emerged as a strong motivator. In contrast, Malaysian firms, driven by their collectivist culture, found motivation in top-down approaches and collective efforts aligned with shared values. These findings present opportunities for cross-cultural learning and emphasize the need for context-specific strategies to address the unique challenges faced by sustainability professionals in their respective settings. In conclusion, this study brings attention to the critical role of organizational cultures in motivating sustainability change agents and highlights the significance of organizational culture factors in driving sustainable practices. By understanding these factors, organizations can cultivate a motivated and proactive workforce of sustainability professionals.

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