Red Cross in new report: disaster relief risks failing without insight into culture and attitudes

Effective disaster prevention work is hampered by the fact that many international organizations today lack knowledge of how culture and different attitudes affect people's attitudes to risk. A more holistic and people-centered approach is required, write Eva von Oelriech and Ulrika Årehed Kågström due to a new report.

Disaster work is increasingly about helping people to better withstand and prepare for natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and extreme weather conditions as well as pandemics. It is a matter of reducing disaster risks in advance. It is a difficult job, not least because international organizations often lack insight into how culture, tradition, inequality and the balance of power govern people's attitudes to risks. Today we see how the attempts to stop the deadly Ebola infection in West Africa will be more difficult, if we do not understand and include cultural ideas and traditions in the picture.

This is what the Red Cross World Disasters Report 2014, which has just been presented, is about.

It is an important topic given that so many people live in places that are exposed to great risks. But it is also about the fact that many experts who come from outside and work with disaster prevention work seem to assume that people in disaster-prone areas are based on a universal logic and rationality and that they actively see the possibility of reducing the risk of disasters from a technical, Western perspective. In the report, we claim that if international organizations do not have sufficient knowledge of, and take people's culture, beliefs and attitudes, seriously, they are likely to fail in their work.

There are many examples of how natural disasters are blamed on fate and power. As in connection with the 2008 flood in the River Kosi in India when an angry goddess was blamed or when a volcanic eruption on Mount Merapi in Java was said to be the mountain god's revenge. After the 2004 tsunami, rumors spread among many people in Aceh, Indonesia, that it was divine retaliation or punishment because tourists behaved badly or because they drilled for oil. Similar notions also occurred in the United States after Hurricane Katrina (2005), where some believed that the disaster showed God's displeasure with an immoral way of life in New Orleans.

Major disasters often receive worldwide media attention and international humanitarian organizations are always in place quickly. Assisting people in risk areas to better withstand and prepare for natural disasters has quickly become an important part of international development efforts. Early tsunami warnings, reforestation of mangrove swamps, sustainable irrigation systems and farming methods and adaptation to climate change are just a few examples of efforts to reduce the risk of disaster and there is much to applaud. But despite all the progress, the evidence is growing when it comes to an obvious, but often forgotten factor, namely the culture's critical influence on what attitude one has to risk. Every society has belief systems, cultural attitudes and hierarchies and they will play a role in how an individual perceives and weighs risks against each other.

This year's World Disasters Report claims that in the short term it is often dangerous and ultimately expensive for international organizations not to take local culture and balances of power into account in efforts to reduce disaster risks.

It is also a challenging theme because it is not about rejecting local beliefs and traditions, it is about taking them into account when supporting the local population's efforts to create preparedness. Disasters of various kinds often become a problem as more and more people live in risk areas with risk of earthquakes, tropical cyclones, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, floods, landslides and droughts. Although the population is almost always aware of the risks, they still remain. They have to support themselves and often have no alternative: coasts and rivers are good for fishing and agriculture and the river valley and the volcanic soils are very fertile. Practices and beliefs are deeply rooted in all cultures. Specific beliefs such as belief in spirits, gods, or simple fatalism enable people to live with the risks and motivate life in dangerous places. The blindness to the consequences of environmental degradation is similarly claimed to be a cultural lock in the Western world. Agriculture's overuse of chemicals that are believed to "disappear" in the oceans is just one example.

… Men hesitate to send their wives and daughters to the shelter, where they are likely to be near other men.

In 1970, Bangladesh was hit by Cyclone Bhola, killing hundreds of thousands of people. Since then, authorities and organizations such as the Red Cross have often successfully designed cyclone protection that has saved many lives. But the decision to go for protection is not always an easy decision. It is due to power structures and cultural traditions set against security. It is not uncommon for women in Bangladesh to wait for their husbands' decisions before leaving the house, while men are reluctant to send their wives and daughters to the shelter, where they are likely to be close to other men. Children and young girls are also affected because they are dependent on their mothers' decisions. It is also the women who in most cases make sure that there is food on the table and that responsibility is not abandoned in any way.

For us as an international humanitarian organization, it is important to realize that organizational structure and planning do not always yield results.

The purpose of the report is to raise complex issues that have to do with cultural clashes and create discussion. For us as an international humanitarian organization, it is important to realize that organizational structure and planning do not always yield results. New ways of thinking are needed and organizations must start from the way people themselves think and behave. It requires a more holistic and people-centered approach, more culturally sensitive, more acceptable to the local population and thus ultimately more effective.

The World Disasters Report does not provide all the answers on how to start from culture and practice in disaster risk reduction, but modern ideas are needed to effectively reduce vulnerability. One of the most important changes must be to understand local power structures and local culture and give women a voice and a role in local risk analysis and other processes. This applies to everything from planning infrastructure and sanitation issues to adapting equipment such as megaphones, backpacks, clothes and rubber boots.

If we understand different ways of believing and behaving, the effectiveness of disaster prevention work will increase and pave the way for better preparation and foresight in the face of the challenges that not least climate change brings.

Eva von Oelriech,
Swedish Red Cross

Ulrika Årehed Kågström,
Swedish Red Cross

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