Engaging with local culture

Mona Regad (Wageningen University)

Because cultural aspects are present at multiple levels of an organisation, of a group and of an individual, culture can be elusive and overlapping, which makes it difficult to ‘notice’. Misunderstandings can happen between people from a similar culture, so between two groups originating from a different faith, profession, or country, they are likely to have much greater consequences. And yet, recognising it is challenging.

In disaster-affected settings, a disaster manager will approach his/her work with a mindset that differs from his/her target groups. International organisations and NGOs have a culture of their own, which trickle down into their vocabulary and procedures. This can translate for example in vulnerability assessments, in a context where people do not perceive themselves as ‘vulnerable’ but instead, use a diversity of resources and strategies to cope with adverse situations. Engaging with local communities necessitates to understand and acknowledge how the community responds as a whole and at the individual level.

Recognising culture

The first step to recognise culture in others is to recognise it in yourself. As a disaster management practitioner, it means being aware of your own culture and of the factors influencing your perception and understanding of events, relationships, speeches… Your experiences and training shape your language, ways of communicating, norms and practices. These bear little resemblance to those of the disaster-affected communities you work with. All the rules, conventions, and behaviours we accept are governed by our culture and express themselves as bias. Accepting these biases is necessary to overcome them and to work effectively with groups originating from another culture.

How to get to the core of the onion – Lessons from fieldwork

In a field research endeavour, a young researcher experienced how to work around biased and socially desirable answers. Fieldwork took place in a distinct cultural setting, namely among Buddhist communities in Ladakh, India. The research aimed at collecting perceptions about weather and climate change in a region which experienced annual occurrences of flood disasters in the last 7 years.

Rig sin gonbo in Igu, Ladakh, India.

Every colour represents a different virtue: power, knowledge and wisdom. In this part of the village, there are four of them on the mountain slopes, where they are built to protect villagers from disastrous events such as flash floods.

Yet, the research design did not show specific cultural awareness. Many questions revolved around the notion of climate change and people’s perceptions of it in their village, such as “Why do you think the weather is changing?”. The first time respondents were asked this question, their answers often involved the use of Western scientific jargon such as “carbon or CO2 emissions”, “global warming” or “climate change”. These answers were characterised by a lack of precision, which suggested to the researcher that this speech was not belonging to the respondent but an echo of their education or from what they collected from the media.

Not satisfied with these answers, the researcher decided to ask the question again at another moment in time. This is where answers slightly differed, as the jargon was still present, but people resituated global phenomena at their local scale. This is how “global warming” was explained as the outcome of increased vehicle traffic at a local mountain pass and of the consequent pollution. It was at that moment that was understood that people used sense-making processes to bridge the gap between their own knowledge, their beliefs, and what they heard from external sources or what they thought the researcher expected from them.

By repeating the same question over time to the same respondents, each time getting closer to the core of their values, the researcher adapted her research to the local context, where beliefs gained a prominent role. In the end, people evoked their own relationships with nature, and the interconnectedness of human and natural systems, as the cause for changing weather conditions. It originated from their cultural Buddhist background.

Hofstede’s ‘’onion’’ model of culture (Hofstede, Hofstede 2005)

To recall Hofstede’s onion model of culture; where culture is compared to an onion, the aim of these questions was to reach the inner values, the meaning people attached to change in their environment. The outside layer of the onion, of a culture, is represented by symbols, which change at a fast-paced rate. Another layer, closer to the core, contains the rituals and cultural habits, which change slowly. Values stand for the core of a culture and do not change much. Although some can seem out-of-fashion, or traditional in a modern world, they still hold a subconscious power to individuals and groups.

Uncovering these beliefs helped the researcher to understand the local context and to place the climate change issue within the local knowledge. It permitted to reflect on the ways local authorities and NGOs communicate about these issues, often in a manner that does not enable people to personally engage with it and thus prevents them from taking action. Networks of support were studied, and religious authorities had a privileged position in the villages both in terms of capacity to reach out to people and in their capital of trust.

“Not everybody goes to school, but everybody goes to the monastery” was one of the key statement given by a respondent, which underlines the need to work with community representatives, including faith leaders or customary chiefs who can sometimes not be documented. Getting these insights from the people had been made possible by accepting not to stick to a single expected answer and to introduce flexibility in the research process. It is one example, among many, of positive outcomes emerging from collaborative intercultural work.

Understanding vulnerability from the perspective of aid recipients and acknowledging existing capacities

Each perspective on vulnerability implies a different strategy for DRR. By understanding vulnerability as a question of infrastructure or nature of the hazard, technological or scientific solutions will be sought. If vulnerability is understood regarding costs and income, then it involves resolving economic and financial issues. Locating vulnerability within societal structures finally suggests looking at the political domain. These dimensions of vulnerability are often interrelated and targeting them in isolation can actually reinforce the vulnerability pattern.

Integrating culture in disaster management and recognising different perspectives towards vulnerability are modes of action taking part of the wider framework of bottom-up approaches which put communities at the centre. Community-based Disaster Risk Reduction (CBDRR) gained popularity in the late 1990s and since then characterise interventions aimed at reducing people’s vulnerability both in the short and long term. At the core of CBDRR are participatory methods and the acknowledgement of capacities in place and of local knowledge.

Methods that are part of the CBDRR framework are:

  • Vulnerability and Capacity Assessment (VCA): as part of disaster preparedness, it aims at measuring people’s exposure to and capacity to withstand natural hazards before setting up action plans to prepare and respond to the risks identified
  • Risk maps produced by population: besides providing useful inputs for the design of early warnings and evacuation measures, for example, risk mapping can open a space for dialogue between various actors of a community

Because all these methods are participatory, they necessitate to engage with communities and sometimes involving them is challenging, especially in in circumstances where different cultures encounter.