World Disasters Report 2014 – Chapter 7

Putting culture at the centre of risk reduction

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.

This report argues that culture is as relevant to climate change adaptation as it is to DRR, because both involve people’s perceptions of risk and the behaviour that follows.

Spiritual beliefs have existed for thousands of years in societies that were at the mercy of natural hazards for which there were no scientific explanations; it would be surprising if they did not have something significant to say about disasters.

When a disaster is seen as punishment, this does not always prevent people from actually supporting disaster preparedness, but people’s response to DRR will probably be greater when their own beliefs are acknowledged.

For organizations engaged in DRR and climate change adaptation, their own culture can make this difficult. They mostly operate on the basis of a scientific approach that finds it difficult to allow for different beliefs.

Cultural aspects of people’s attitude to risk appear to be related to two types of behaviour. Firstly, behaviours that have little material benefit are inherently related to producing a satisfying emotional state. Secondly, some risk-facing behaviour involves the emergence of cultures that enable people to fulfil their livelihoods in dangerous places, and to give a lower priority to extreme hazards.

Disaster managers often wonder why, even with information about an imminent hazard, not all people act to minimise its impact. But not everyone views risks in the same way.

In some cultures, power relations are embedded in the culture and lead to different allocations of risk. One of the most significant of these relates to gender; the other to formal limits on the livelihoods that someone can do (like caste).

Organizations must reflect on their internal culture and how it interacts with the culture of the people they intend to support, especially in:

  • accepting that people may have a hierarchy of risks
  • not assuming unity among people where work is to be carried out
  • not assuming people share the same logic and rationality
  • acknowledging that people’s beliefs may be different from those of the organization.

Many organizations have incorporated measures to include local, grass-roots perceptions and priorities in their work; in others, local cultures are recognized but not fully accounted for in DRR.

This is another key aspect of the culture of organizations: it is often difficult to assess the causes of vulnerability. Organizations have also developed cultures that enable them to avoid looking at the real causes of problems. Employees or volunteers are often aware of the beliefs and priorities on which people’s livelihoods are based, but the knowledge fades at higher levels of the organization’s administration, which involve financial, logistical and donor constraints.  

Here are some general points to support the improvement of the inclusion of culture into DRR and climate change adaptation work:

  1. Understand the culture of the people your organization works with.
  2. Many technical terms related to DRR and climate climate change have their origins in English, and prove difficult to translate into other languages.
  3. Acknowledge and understand people’s beliefs.
  4. But it is not possible to respect some beliefs, such as female genital mutilation.
  5. Respect emotion as a factor.
  6. Understanding clashing priorities.
  7. Recognise diversity.
  8. Acknowledge that local skills linked to culture can enhance DRR.
  9. Ask what beliefs people do have about risks, and
  10. What would people have to give up to embrace a scientific approach?
  11. What are the time frames involved with hazards?
  12. Where does the post-disaster humanitarian process link up to all this?


One of the most important issues to be understood is power systems - especially important in rural areas where power affects use of assets and resources in livelihoods. Many organizations have adopted a culture of community as an organizational concept, reinforcing the notion that power relations are not significant at the local level.

Local-level work is not the only way to support people. In many parts of the world, the most effective way to reduce poverty is to provide good levels of social services, like public health and education, achieved through top-down redistribution.

No matter how many organizations work at grassroots level, it is impossible to be ‘community-based’ everywhere. Every village and neighbourhood in the world will have to adapt to climate change, and it impossible for NGOs and the Red Cross Red Crescent to achieve this through community-based activities. So, key to designing effective ‘top-down’ policies is national-level support for local-level disaster preparedness, rather than the hit and miss local DRR carried out by the Red Cross Red Crescent and NGOs.

In housing and the built environment, for example, people have only recently adapted traditional construction to make safer homes, with some DRR organizations playing a significant part. But the impact of disasters often involves a loss of confidence in local building cultures, and the aim should be to enable affected people to recover through local capacities.

In the health sector, humanitarian agencies need to be prepared to adjust to local conditions, and disaster medicine should be embedded in services so that primary health care systems can handle extreme situations.


The report has emphasised that DRR cannot succeed unless it incorporates culture - both people’s own culture and a re-examination of the culture of the organizations involved. What makes this more significant is that climate change will increase the number of vulnerable people and worsen hazards.

Climate change requires a complete rethink on DRR; where they are acting as barriers, cultural factors become even more important. Institutional cultures must evolve to take on new challenges. But climate change is a window of opportunity for DRR organizations to change and learn from the cultural responses and blocks to dealing with global warming in rich countries and some religions.