World Disasters Report: Focus on culture and risk

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies


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. This paper looks at different aspects of how culture affects disaster risk reduction (DRR) and how disasters and risk influence culture. It assesses the effects of religion and other beliefs and the culture of DRR organizations.

The paper also 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 and assesses how to overcome the barriers of ‘organizational culture’ (including a challenge to the widespread faith that many have in doing things that are ‘community based) for more successful disaster preparedness. Finally it 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.

Key findings

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Some aspects of people’s culture may lead them to ignore or avoid the threat of climate change or to deal with it in similar ways to natural hazards.
  • Where cultural factors are acting as barriers, therefore, it becomes even more important to understand and transform them.
  • DRR cannot continue and be successful unless it incorporates culture – both people’s own culture and a re-examination of that of the organizations involved.
  • Climate change will increase the number of vulnerable people and worsen the extreme hazards. It therefore requires a complete rethink on how organizations do DRR. We will have less sustained impact if we do not adequately take account of people’s cultures, beliefs and attitudes in relation to risk.
  • Climate change can be regarded as a window of opportunity, in which DRR organizations can check and change their own outlook, beliefs and behaviours, and learn from the very visible cultural responses and blocks to dealing with global warming that are apparent in high-income countries and some religions. It provokes a re-think of how DRR is carried out, as it forces a focus on livelihoods and people’s everyday problems and needs.
  • Adaptation requires dealing with food and nutrition, health and all other aspects of well-being alongside the disaster and extreme event components of climate change. It, therefore, offers the opportunity of integration as something that all DRR and adaptation organizations must seize with rapid enthusiasm.


International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. (2014) World Disasters Report: Focus on culture and risk. Switzerland: IFRC.