World Disasters Report 2014 – Chapter 1

The links between culture and risk

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’? asks this edition of World Disasters Report.

Climate change is included because it is now impossible to separate disaster risk reduction (DRR) from the need for climate change adaptation (CCA). It is essential to integrate DRR with adaptation, and consider culture in relation to both.

The interaction between culture and risk relates to many aspects of behaviour, including religion (chapter 2), livelihoods and perception of risk (chapter 3), connection with others in communities and the significance of power relations (chapter 4), where people live and the effects of culture on construction (chapter 5), and health (chapter 6). The emphasis is on disaster preparedness rather than response.

In relation to risk, the key issue is when culture becomes ‘activated’ as a factor in people’s behaviour, and in the interaction between insider and outsider. In chapter 7 we provide some guidance on how to manage this, and draw on examples where good practice has emerged.

There is no single definition of culture. The report examines beliefs and behaviours relevant to risk and how people relate these to natural hazards; but social, political and organizational structures are part of the process by which culture is created.

It is important to understand culture because it embodies beliefs about what action people should take in relation to risk, and it is relevant to how disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation are carried out. Culture also matters because it can both increase and reduce vulnerability.

Ways of dealing with risk may include adherence to group attitudes that people cannot easily avoid. Culture is about a shared experience of life, including the spiritual forces that are believed to affect it. Breaking with the beliefs of a group can risk exclusion from the ‘social capital’ that goes with it (What are Livelihoods, chapter 3).

The culture involved in risk is not just that of the people supposed to benefit from risk reduction and adaptation, but also that of organizations. This report examines how these two cultures clash, reducing the effectiveness of risk reduction and adaptation to climate change, and argues it is essential to understand the cultures of organizations themselves.

Any culture is part of a perpetual series of negotiations between social groups, including:

  • tensions between generations
  • formal education
  • interactions between different ethnic or religious groups
  • conflict
  • interaction and conflict between insiders and outsiders
  • power-based practices or cultures
  • cultural practices like dance and costume.

There is research on the role of culture in relation to disasters, but it has had little impact on mainstream organizations.

Culture can be significant in creating vulnerability, especially where beliefs and behaviours are embedded in power systems that allocate risk unequally (chapter 4). In some cultures, landless people, minorities, low-class and low-caste groups as well as females may ‘accept’ their position as cultural rather than exploitative.

Other work that has had little impact on DRR thinking centres on public health. Culture is relevant to risk perception for health issues (chapter 6), including nutrition, child vaccination, and continuing denial that germs cause disease. DRR organizations have not taken up clear lessons from many public health and preventive medicine initiatives.

The spread of the Ebola fever from February 2014 in West Africa is partly a result of a cultural clash in how to deal with the dead, and some local people’s suspicion of outsiders’ theories about the illness. People interpret information through a cultural lens.

There are doubts that providing information changes people’s behaviour in the direction of risk reduction, as in the standard ‘Knowledge, Attitudes, Behaviour’ model, and the ‘Information Deficit Model’ (chapter 3); the significance of place and emotional attachments to it are also well understood (also chapter 3).

Death in the 20th Century visualizationCulture is a neglected but practical entry point for understanding behaviour by institutions and people but not the complete story; other factors currently missing from disaster preparedness and adaptation must be considered. Beliefs and associated behaviour are also connected to individual traits, including personality.


This report is intended to open the door to culture for organizations that work in DRR and CCA. It is partly ‘awareness raising’ and aims to make it legitimate for professionals and organizations to view cultural issues as significant.

Most DRR interventions assume people will behave in ways that minimise the risks identified by the outsider, but fail to take account of the cultural behaviour that often leads to people having different rationalities.

Many DRR organizations are divorced from the realities of life and the expectations of those at risk. People do not behave in the way that disaster managers expect them to behave. Organizations are also likely to be dependent on funding from donors that are willing to support DRR for specific hazards, and who cannot or do not want to work on the causes of poverty and vulnerability.