Religion and Disaster Risk Reduction: A Review of the World Disasters Report 2014

The cover of the 2014 World Disasters Report
The cover of the 2014 World Disasters Report

The 2014 edition of the International Federation of the Red Cross’ (IFRC) World Disasters Report (WDR 2014) focuses on risk and culture.[1] The intersection of these two areas represents a response to the current trend for disaster risk reduction (DRR) research, policy, and programming in the humanitarian sector and the introduction of culture as a potentially important cross-cutting issue. The second chapter of the report singles out religion as an influencing factor, while other chapters examine livelihoods, community, the built environment, and public health. It almost goes without saying that religion will play a role in how people perceive risk and respond to disasters. In today’s post, Olivia Wilkinson asks, If it is so obvious that religion affects perceptions and responses to risk, why is this report particularly different or the topic worthy of concern?

This year’s World Disasters Report contains the rather unsurprising focus on risk. Unsurprising because there has been an increasing emphasis in humanitarian policy and programming on an approach that prioritises prevention, preparation and mitigation of the impact of disasters rather than response alone. It is most easily reduced to the adage “prevention is better than cure”, although this by no means represents the full range of complex strategies implemented by organisations to reduce disaster risk. Risk has become a dominant concept in modern humanitarian action and a key concern for organisations like the Red Cross.[2]

The concentration on culture, however, is more unusual. Even more extraordinary is the consideration of religion. It is prudent to remember that, “It is virtually impossible to imagine global citizenship without recognising that the vast majority of such citizens are believers who do not view their beliefs as quaint curiosities.”[3] Nevertheless, the faith of populations affected by high risk of disaster has been marginalised in DRR and humanitarian action over the years.[4] Other worthwhile cross-cutting issues have dominated instead, such as gender and climate change. Yet commentators have increasingly asked the question, in a climate in which policies are written and re-written for a range of potentially sensitive issues such as gender, violence against women, the environment, indigenous peoples, and land reform, why is religion under-represented in the policy and programming of international non-governmental organisations?[5]

This brings us to the role of the WDR 2014. The content of the report is not radical, as it mostly comprises a literature review of relevant material with some additional examples provided by contributors. However, the existence of the report is noteworthy. As is emphasised time and again by the authors, DRR and humanitarian actors have woefully neglected the impact of culture and religion. The fact that an internationally renowned organisation such as the IFRC has devoted their most prominent annual report to the topic marks a turning point in the acceptance of the subject in the study of humanitarian action and DRR.

The report shows a good degree of sensitivity to the range of cultures at play in DRR and humanitarian action by highlighting the influence of organisational culture as well as contextual culture. This is the difference between the study of culture in disaster, on the one hand, which examines the effects of disaster on the cultures and religions of affected populations and the study of DRR and humanitarian culture, on the other hand, which should examine the impacts of culture within organisations on their staff members, their policy, and their programming. For a report with a mainly NGO audience, it is significant that the authors have chosen to remind readers of their own cultural “baggage”, so to speak. International NGOs can represent a particular, secularised perspective that is foreign to many of the countries in which they work.[6] While the report briefly mentions that “non-religious beliefs also matter” and notes the problems that can arise with an overreliance on a technological perspective[7], the opportunity to more explicitly explore the role of a secularised mindset on policy and programming is unfortunately not utilised.

The report relies on existing anthropological and sociological research to furnish the authors with stories of religious response to disaster, but offers few examples of how DRR and humanitarian actors have negotiated opportunities and challenges presented by religious interpretations of risk. The authors readily acknowledge this gap, stating that, “…the biggest research gap is the need for better understanding of how to intervene when beliefs are responsible for raising vulnerability to natural hazards.”[8] Some effort is made to provide questions organisations can ask themselves in order to take the culture and religion of affected populations into account.[9] While these questions for organisations offer an initial tool to incorporate an awareness of religion into policy and programming, the relative lack of research in the area of religion, DRR, and humanitarian action is clear. For more advances to be made there needs to be increased evidence on a) the negotiations between humanitarian actors and the cultures and religions of affected populations and b) strategies for the accommodation of differing cultural and religious perspectives into planning and programming. The WDR 2014 signifies more interest in this area, but much remains to be done.

Olivia Wilkinson is a PhD Candidate at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin and a Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar.

[1] World Disasters Report: Focus on Culture and Risk (Geneva: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, October 16, 2014), http://www.ifrc.org/publications-and-reports/world-disasters-report/world-disasters-report-2014/.

[2] The Routledge Handbook is a fairly comprehensive resource on DRR. Benjamin Wisner, J. C. Gaillard, and Ilan Kelman, eds., The Routledge Handbook of Hazards and Disaster Risk Reduction, Routledge Handbooks (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012).

[3] T. Walsh, “Religion, Peace and the Post-Secular Public Sphere,” International Journal on World Peace, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, 2012, 57.

[4] See, for example, Alastair Ager and Joey Ager, “Faith and the Discourse of Secular Humanitarianism,” Journal of Refugee Studies, Volume 24, Issue 3, 2011, 456–72; Michael Barnett, “Where Is the Religion? Humanitarianism, Faith, and World Affairs,” in Rethinking Religion and World Affairs, ed. Timothy Sameual Shah, Alfred C. Stepan, and Monica Duffy Toft (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2012), 165–81; Ben Wisner, “Untapped Potential of the World’s Religious Communities for Disaster Reduction in an Age of Accelerated Climate Change: An Epilogue and Prologue,” Religion, 40:2, 2010, 128–31.

[5] Jenny Lunn, “The Role of Religion, Spirituality and Faith in Development: A Critical Theory Approach,” Third World Quarterly 30, no. 5 (2009): 941.

[6] Ager and Ager, “Faith and the Discourse of Secular Humanitarianism.”

[7] WDR 2014, 41.

[8] Ibid., 54.

[9] Ibid., 196.

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