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World Disasters Report – Focus on culture and risk

Culture and risk

This year, the World Disasters Report takes on a challenging theme that looks at different aspects of how culture affects disaster risk reduction (DRR) and how disastersand risk influence culture. The report asks, for example, what should be done whenpeople blame a flood on an angry goddess (River Kosi, India, in 2008) or a volcaniceruption of the mountain god (Mount Merapi). After the tsunami in 2004, manypeople in Aceh (Indonesia) believed that Allah had punished them for allowingtourism or drilling for oil, and similar beliefs were widespread in the United Statesregarding Hurricane Katrina, showing God’s displeasure with aspects of the behaviourof the people who live in or visit New Orleans.

Most people who live in places that are exposed to serious hazards are aware ofthe risks they face, including earthquakes, tropical cyclones, tsunami, volcanic eruptions,floods, landslides and droughts. Yet they still live there because, to earn theirliving, they need to, or worse, have no other alternative. Coasts and rivers are good for fishing andfarming; valley and volcanic soils are very fertile; drought alternates with good rains for farmingor herding. Culture and beliefs, for example, in spirits or gods, or simple fatalism,enable people to live with risks and make sense of their lives in dangerous places.Sometimes, though, unequal power relations are also part of culture, and those whohave little influence are inevitably the most at risk and are often unable to cope with disasters.

Together with other organizations that engage in DRR, we in the Red Cross Red Crescent know about people’s beliefs and cultures and their different interpretations ofrisk. However, we find it challenging to fit these seamlessly into our organizationalframework and funding models. Instead we tend to assume (or hope) that the peoplewe want to support use the same logic and rationality as we do and that they willwant to reduce the disaster risk. Sometimes there is also an institutional reluctanceto deal with the issues of inequality and power that make people vulnerable in theplaces where they make a living.

The one thing that is certain is that we will have less sustained impact if we do not adequately take account of people’s cultures, beliefs and attitudes in relation to risk.With climate change leading to damaged livelihoods, and therefore more vulnerability,and making hazards more extreme and/or frequent, we have to get this right.

One important goal of this edition of the World Disasters Report is to bring these complex issues and clashes of cultures into the open for discussion, so that they canbe much better incorporated into DRR work. The first part (Chapter 2) assesses theeffects of religion and other beliefs. The next chapters (3 and 4) examine the cultureof DRR organizations, showing that we are all subject to beliefs and attitudes thatframe our outlooks on risk and what should be done about them. It asks why DRRactors and organizations persist in giving priority to severe hazards when they knowthat most people do not mention them when asked what risks they face. It is difficultfor most people to be concerned about occasional and unpredictable severe events(or climate change) when many of their problems are ‘development’ needs that havenot been fulfilled. Fortunately, the need for convergence between DRR and developmentis part of the discussions of the successors to the Hyogo Framework for Actionand the Millennium Development Goals. This World Disasters Report also explains howDRR must take account of all the causes of vulnerability – including cultural ones –as the starting point for risk reduction.

After this discussion of ‘organizational culture’ (including a challenge to the widespread faith that many have in doing things that are ‘community based’ in Chapter4), the report assesses how to overcome these barriers for more successful disasterpreparedness. This is done first in the context of how traditional cultures can helpwith shelter and housing (Chapter 5) and also in health and medicine (Chapter 6).These are all areas in which the Red Cross Red Crescent has immense experienceand has shown leadership in recent decades.

The final chapter asks what needs to happen next, how to take account of culture for DRR and also the need to build awareness of how ‘organizational culture’ has tochange, for example, by not assuming that the people we are supporting are ‘irrational’but instead accepting that they have different rationalities. It begins the process inwhich we all need to develop new ways of thinking and acting for DRR so that ourorganizations have a much better alignment with the way people think and act.This publication does not provide all the answers to these complex issues, whichvary a great deal around the world. But it shows where the starting points are. It givessome indications of the direction in which we need to go and draws on examples ofgood integration of traditional and ‘modern’ ideas for achieving effective vulnerabilityreduction. Recognizing the significance of the different ways of believing andbehaving will increase the effectiveness of DRR and development initiatives generallyand pave the way for greater impact in our responses to the challenges stemmingfrom climate change.

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