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News and Media
Tropical Storm Agatha, in May 2010, wrought havoc in Guatemala and El Salvador (pictured here). FLICKR/Comandos de Salvamento El Salvador
A workshop organised by SEI’s Lisa Schipper aims to promote research on the role of culture in disaster response and preparedness.
When disasters strike, not all are affected equally. Higher income and education, for example, are known to help reduce vulnerability. But what about cultural differences?
Working around the world over the last decade, SEI senior scientist Lisa Schipper has seen several examples of how culture and religious beliefs can affect people’s vulnerability, their response to disasters, and attitudes toward disaster preparedness.
In El Salvador, for example, she found that evangelical Protestants were less likely to take action to protect their homes and livelihoods from extreme events than Catholics, because they saw disasters as punishments from God, whereas the latter saw them as trials in which they must prove themselves.
In Ethiopia, meanwhile, she found orthodox Christians were likelier to lose their crops than Muslims, because they have to spend several days in Church every month, whereas Muslims do not. This means that the Christians cannot always irrigate their crops during key periods in the planting season, and thus lose them.
A knowledge gap
Yet in the big picture, Schipper says, far too little is known about the interplay between culture and disasters, and there is a substantial need for more research in this field. To help develop such a research agenda, she and three colleagues organised a workshop on 5-6 July in Bielefeld, Germany, hosted and sponsored by theCentre for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF).
The event, co-organised by Terry Cannon (Institute of Development Studies, U.K.), Greg Bankoff (University of Hull, U.K.) and Fred Krüger (University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany), drew about 40 disaster risk researchers from a wide range of disciplines.
Participants presented case studies from around the world, emphasising developing countries.They focused on three questions:
• Why is culture important to understanding natural hazards and potential disasters?
• How do people operationalise culture in their day to day disaster risk reduction?
• What are the key scientific frameworks for understanding the role of culture in disaster risk reduction, and how effective are they?
Greg Bankoff, of the University of Hull, speaking at the workshop.
Identifying key research questions
“We wanted to figure out how we could get the role of culture to figure more prominently in dialogues about vulnerability, disaster risk reduction and climate change,” Schipper says. “We also wanted to identify the key research questions to help us raise the profile of the topic and provide a better knowledge base for how culture interacts with risk.”
From the discussions, the group developed a preliminary set of research questions, building on the workshop themes. On a broad scale, they want to look more in-depth at the role of culture in increasing vulnerability or, conversely, making them more resilient.
They also proposed examining the culture of disaster risk reduction practices and approaches, including humanitarian campaigns, and the role of culture in influencing disaster risk reduction practices and institutions.
In addition, they want to explore ethical issues about imposing changes on cultures with the purpose of reducing risk, and of judging cultures as making people more or less vulnerable to disaster risk
Planned follow-up activities include the establishment of an email list for interested individuals, different publications, and additional workshops to hammer out the research agenda.