World Disasters Report 2014 – Focus on 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 disasters and risk influence culture.

The report asks, for example, what should be done when people blame a flood on an angry goddess (River Kosi, India, in 2008) or a volcanic eruption on the mountain god (Mount Merapi). After the tsunami in 2004, many people in Aceh (Indonesia) believed that Allah had punished them for allowing tourism or drilling for oil, and similar beliefs were widespread in the United States regarding Hurricane Katrina, showing God’s displeasure with aspects of the behaviour of the people who live in or visit New Orleans.

Most people who live in places that are exposed to serious hazards are aware of the risks they face, including earthquakes, tropical cyclones, tsunami, volcanic eruptions, floods, landslides and droughts. Yet they still live there because, to earn their living, they need to or have no alternative. Coasts and rivers are good for fishing and farming; valley and volcanic soils are very fertile; drought alternates with good farming or 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 who have little influence must inevitably cope with threatening environments.

Logic and rationality

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 of risk. However, we find it challenging to fit these seamlessly into our organizational framework and funding models. Instead we tend to assume (or hope) that the people we want to support use the same logic and rationality as we do and that they will want to reduce the disaster risk. Sometimes there is also an institutional reluctance to deal with the issues of inequality and power that make people vulnerable in the places 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.

DRR and development

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 can be much better incorporated into DRR work. The first part (Chapter 2) assesses the effects of religion and other beliefs. The next chapters (3 and 4) examine the culture of DRR organizations, showing that we are all subject to beliefs and attitudes that frame our outlooks on risk and what should be done about them. It asks why DRR actors and organizations persist in giving priority to severe hazards when they know that most people do not mention them when asked what risks they face. It is difficult for most people to be concerned about occasional and unpredictable severe events (or climate change) when many of their problems are ‘development’ needs that have not been fulfilled. Fortunately, the need for convergence between DRR and development is part of the discussions of the successors to the Hyogo Framework for Action and the Millennium Development Goals. This World Disasters Report also explains how DRR must take account of all the causes of vulnerability – including cultural ones – as the starting point for risk reduction. 

Effective engagement with traditional cultures

After this discussion of ‘organizational culture’ (including a challenge to the widespread faith that many have in doing things that are ‘community based’ in Chapter 4), the report assesses how to overcome these barriers for more successful disaster preparedness. This is done first in the context of how traditional cultures can help with 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 experience and 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 to change, 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 in which 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, which vary a great deal around the world. But it shows where the starting points are. It gives some indications of the direction in which we need to go and draws on examples of good integration of traditional and ‘modern’ ideas for achieving effective vulnerability reduction. Recognizing the significance of the different ways of believing andbehaving will increase the effectiveness of DRR and development initiatives generally and pave the way for greater impact in our responses to the challenges stemming from climate change. 

The links between culture and risk

Chapter 1 header image

When Hurricane Katrina struck the US in 2005, politicians and some of those affected believed it was God’s punishment for sin in New Orleans. Some Japanese blamed the gods for the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. In West Africa, where the Mount Cameroon volcano erupts every few years, a chief reflected many people’s beliefs in saying: ‘When the mountain god gets angry it causes eruptions.’ Around the world, people’s response to risk is based partly on culture.

Why do people deal with risk in these ways? And why do the organizations that set out to prepare for disasters ignore people’s ‘risk culture’?


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How religion and belief influence attitudes to risk

Chapter 2 heading

Why is it that even when they have information about a hazard, not everyone acts to minimize the impact?

This chapter describes how people’s perceptions and attitudes towards risk are shaped by religion, custom and social norms. Religion is a particularly important driver of perceptions and behaviour.

The two dimensions of belief that emerge most prominently in the context of disaster risk reduction (DRR) are the way it forms an obstacle to reducing risk and influences people’s understanding of it.

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Taking livelihoods seriously

Chapter 3 header image

This chapter focuses on livelihoods. Why do people live in dangerous places aware of the risks? Because that is where they can make a living. This is a significant challenge for disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate change adaptation (CCA).

Flood plains and volcanic soils are very fertile; coasts are good for fishing and farming; and fault zones in arid areas often have associated water supplies. All over the world, there are towns and cities that provide livelihoods but are located on coasts, rivers and fault lines.

People ‘discount’ the risk of the big event for a livelihood. Even if they might lose their home in a disaster, living in one place provides subsistence, jobs and economic opportunities they would not get if they moved elsewhere.

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The myth of community?

Chapter 4 header image

Many organizations that deal with disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate change adaptation (CCA) have developed a culture built on faith rather than evidence. This chapter focuses on an often misplaced belief in ‘community’ and the ‘participation’ that goes with it.

Most NGOs, the Red Cross Red Crescent, and many international organizations use ‘community’ widely and it is often preferred to ‘people’ or ‘location’. The word has acquired mythic value, but involves assumptions about benign behaviour and collaboration that may not be valid.

Culture, risk and the built environment

Chapter 5 header

The principal aim of this chapter is to draw attention to the built environment as an arena for disaster risk reduction and to highlight the advantages of indigenous knowledge and vernacular architecture.

All disasters affect the built environment and many, like the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010, also exacerbate a housing crisis. The state of the built environment is a major determinant of risk.

Culturally sensitive public health: the HIV/AIDS disaster and beyond

Chapter 6 header

This chapter shows that different cultures - ‘biomedical’ public health versus ‘traditional’ medicine - interact. It is important to take account of this.

The relationship between disasters and health is twofold. Firstly, a hazardous event, social crisis or war might corrupt living conditions such that diseases, injuries or other acute health impairments occur.

Secondly, diseases themselves can provoke disastrous conditions - the HIV/AIDS pandemic, for example. From a public health perspective, such disasters are complex because a political process is needed to designate them so.

In humanitarian and public health action, the importance of what are vaguely labelled ‘communities’, ‘local response’ and ‘resilience’ have been widely acknowledged.

It is essential for humanitarian action to identify those who are, or have become, particularly vulnerable.

Putting culture at the centre of risk reduction

Chapter 7 header

This chapter highlights how culture can pose a challenge in dealing with natural hazards but also support disaster risk reduction (DRR). It provides guidance on how culture should be incorporated in disaster preparedness and mitigation, especially amid climate change.

Hazards only become disasters if there are vulnerable people affected. The same hurricane can pass over three countries in the Caribbean and have different effects in each. The intensity of its impact depends on vulnerability.

For DRR to succeed, it must overcome vulnerability. To politics, economics and social factors, we must add culture - crucial for three reasons:

  • People’s beliefs can be an obstacle to DRR.

  • Culture can support DRR and adaptation.

  • Culture is an integral part of everyday life.

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Launch events

The 2014 publication was launched in Doha on 16 October, 2014. There were additional events around the world.

Launch events

Download the report (6mb pdf)


World Disasters Report 2014 – Chapter 1
The links between culture and risk
World Disasters Report 2014 – Chapter 2
How religion and belief influence attitudes to risk
World Disasters Report 2014 – Chapter 3
Taking livelihoods seriously
World Disasters Report 2014 – Chapter 5
Culture, risk and the built environment
World Disasters Report 2014 – Chapter 6
Culturally sensitive public health: the HIV/AIDS disaster and beyond
World Disasters Report 2014 – Chapter 7
Putting culture at the centre of risk reduction

Printed copies

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Disaster Resilience Journal