Accessibility links

OPINION: The case for recognising the role of culture in reducing disaster risk

Also posted in Spanish

Lisa Schipper sets out the case for greater recognition of culture as a key driver of both risks to natural hazards and solutions to reducing risk  – which should be reflected in the successor agreement to the Hyogo Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction, the ‘HFA2.’

This blog is part of CDKN’s blog series: ‘Rethinking a new global agreement for disaster risk reduction’  which invites contributors to outline their ideas for a better post-2015 disaster risk management agreement. If you would like to contribute, please contact Amy Kirbyshire.

As the international community gears up for a new action framework on disaster risk reduction in 2015, many are reflecting on how well we have achieved the ultimate objective of the current Hyogo Framework for Action. The message coming through is that more needs to be done, and it needs to be done differently.

Today’s socio-political landscape is very different from how it was a decade ago.  Since 2005, there has been greater acknowledgement of the links between climate change, disaster risk, violent conflict, human rights, and of course human development.  With two additional IPCC reports completed, there is better evidence that climate change contributes both to worsening natural hazards, as well as to the deterioration of resilience.  As a consequence, efforts to reduce disaster risk are now playing in a new field.  This leaves little doubt that a greater emphasis on reducing the underlying drivers of vulnerability needs to be more prominent in the next disaster agreement.  This requires thinking outside the box.

Although there has been welcome recognition of the crucial role that vulnerability plays in determining risk since the 1980s (eg. Blaikie et al, 1994), most people associate poverty as the main driver of vulnerability. While poverty certainly plays an important role, there are many other factors that drive vulnerability, which may be even more difficult to address or to even discuss.  However, if we are really serious about reducing disaster risk, the time is now ripe for bringing challenging, uncomfortable and controversial issues to the fore.

Culture and the role that it plays in determining vulnerability is one of these. Culture is defined as social institutions, customs and beliefs that people hold, or characteristics that bind groups of people together.  Culture refers to things like religious and traditional beliefs, values, importance placed on social structures, customary livelihood choices and settlement patterns.  Culture influences people’s risk because it influences their interpretation of what a hazard means and how they should react to it. It also shapes the norms by which the acceptability of risk are defined: what to some may be too risky, is for others be part of their daily routine, like living in floodplains.  Thus, culture also influences people’s risk indirectly because livelihood choices, settlement locations, social networks and time availability for preparedness activities, including education, all influence vulnerability.  In some societies, cultural characteristics may be the determining factor in whether people will be adversely affected by climate change or hazards. The purpose of putting culture in the centre of disaster risk reduction is not to place blame on culture, but rather to raise awareness of this important dimension of vulnerability.

Despite its clear importance, culture continues to be overlooked when thinking about vulnerability to climate change and disaster risk. There are at least two reasons for this: (1) the role it plays in influencing vulnerability is often too poorly understood by scientists who deal with vulnerability to hazards, and (2) because it is revealed in attitudes and behaviour that many feel are too awkward, sensitive or difficult to address.  However, if we do not include these issues when talking about how to reduce risk, we are essentially deciding not to consider some of the most important factors that make people think and act the way they do.

In El Salvador, for example, only liberation theology Catholics were participating in risk reduction projects carried out by the Inter-American Development Bank and several humanitarian NGOs in the early 2000s.  Evangelical Protestants who also lived in the same village did not engage because their beliefs encouraged more passive and fatalistic perspectives of risk.  And it is not simply a matter of ‘explaining’ – if the basic concept of risk reduction goes against cultural practices and beliefs, people are more likely to stick with their existing philosophies to avoid being seen to break tradition, because they do not understand or agree with risk reduction, or simply because it is easier to continue as before.

There is some evidence to indicate that cultural norms can shift in response to challenging climatic conditions.  In Assam, India, one ethnic group started building houses on stilts to avoid being affected by recurring floods, even though such structures were traditionally the way lower-caste groups built their homes, with whom they didn’t want to be associated.  Other groups adopted new livelihoods that they were previously not allowed to undertake because of hierarchies among different groups, in order to adapt to the new conditions [link to ICIMOD report].  Such rapid shifts in behaviour and attitude are not a given in every case – far from it.  But they do suggest that there is potential to help facilitate an evolution in culture to allow for risk reduction to be incorporated.

Despite curious anecdotes about how people’s culture leads them to behave in risk increasing ways before, during and after a disaster, these anecdotes are often taken no further (eg. Bhalla, 2014).  Not much thought is given to how this could be changed, probably because people’s culture is seen as untouchable.  But there is growing consensus among academics and practitioners that socio-cultural and behavioural dimensions need to be integrated into actions to address vulnerability to climate change and natural hazards, to maximise the potential for long-term success.  Doing this requires a thorough understanding of how people reason and what leads them to behave in certain ways, which is not typically part of projects or programmes designed to address climate change or disaster impacts.  This requires drawing on fields such as anthropology, psychology, sociology and behavioural economics to develop a transdisciplinary understanding of how culture and behaviour influence social vulnerability.

Understanding belief systems is now more crucial than ever.  The need for transformation rather than simply adaptation to climate change has become a popular way of describing the extensive societal changes needed to live in a riskier world (Pelling, 2010; Denton et al, 2014).  A large portion of necessary changes have to do with attitudes, perceptions and behaviour.  The need for these changes is well recognised for actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but much less so for adjusting to climate risks. Partly this marginalisation of the topic in the disaster risk policy and practice arena results from a lack of awareness among the decision-making actors, and partly it is driven by the framework of short-term projects and funding within which they function.  However, it also reflects unwillingness to influence traditional beliefs, social norms, and other socio-cultural aspects that determine perceptions.

The next iteration of the HFA must include direct reference to culture to effectively reduce vulnerability to all sorts of natural hazards.  The HFA2 must note that culture has a role in shaping people’s perceptions of risk, which can determine whether they will act to reduce their exposure and sensitivity or even in response to a disaster.  This will help practitioners, governments, donors and others who question why people do not automatically behave in a risk reducing way to understand the other factors that have a greater influence on perceptions.  Tailoring actions to reduce risk to the cultural context is also crucial for successful and sustainable risk reduction, and needs to be underscored in HFA2.  This will provide guidance for ensuring that appropriate and relevant policies and measures are prioritised over theoretically effective but culturally unviable ones.  Finally, rather than blaming culture and traditional values for ‘irrational’ behaviour, there must be an explicit acknowledgement of the way in which society, economy and politics help shape culture, and that culture determines worldviews that rationalise most behaviour that does not prioritise risk reduction.


 Sometimes CDKN invites guest bloggers from around the world to share their views on climate compatible development. These views do not necessarily represent those of CDKN or its alliance partners. 

 Photo courtesy CIAT.




, , , , ,

Comments are closed.