Skip to content

​​​​Illustration by Sara Gironi Carnevale​​

How Culture Influences Disaster Recovery

Nearly 55 percent of the global population lives in cities, and by 2050, the United Nations estimates that will rise to 70 percent. With such concentrated populations, natural disasters can wreak havoc—by 2030, disasters will cost cities around the world $214 billion annually in damage, the World Bank reports.

The risks these cities face on a regular basis—and the potential long-term impact of those risks on citizens’ lives, local economies, and the global landscape—are driving them to invest in more robust emergency preparedness and disaster recovery plans.

The World Bank Group and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) released a guideline in 2018 for citywide resiliency and recovery called the CURE Framework. This framework outlines how culture—which encompasses touchstones like landmarks, temples, and relics, as well as local practices and traditions—affects resiliency. It offers suggestions on how emergency managers can leverage culture to help disaster-affected regions “build back better.”

“Culture is the foundation upon which cities are built,” says Ahmed Eiweida, lead urban specialist with The World Bank, Singapore. “Cities are not just a collection of buildings, but are the people, their stories, and how they interact with each other through their cultural identity and sense of place.”

Eiweida was one of the authors of the position paper on the UNESCO and World Bank framework, Culture in City Reconstruction ​and Recovery.

Integrating culture into sustainable urban development and disaster recovery policies helps make cities more inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable, according to the paper. Focusing on the culture of an area also promotes harmony and reconciliation between different groups of people who may have a history of conflict.

“Emergency managers are increasingly recognizing the benefits of integrating the specific needs of culture and cultural heritage into their wider plans. At the same time, site managers of cultural heritage and tourist sites are recognizing the need to plan and prepare their sites for the hazard scenarios they will face,” Eiweida says.

“In practice, integrating culture means bringing together professionals from key disciplines at the national and more localized levels in pre-disaster planning,” he adds. “National emergency authorities often have access to key disaster risk data and general plans for resource deployment, while other national ministries may be able to prepare and adapt specific social protection programs or bring other key steps to pre-disaster planning. To better understand and share cultural aspects at the local level, local authorities must be part of the pre-disaster planning for their areas, as they will have better knowledge of their communities’ expectations, existing resources, and key areas of cultural focus.”

After a 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck Myanmar in 2016, for example, more than 350 monuments at the Bagan cultural heritage site were damaged. Afterward, national officials partnered with cultural authorities, site managers, business leaders, and local community members to develop a new disaster management plan that would safeguard national treasures and promote local culture.

“Culture-based recovery relies on a recognition that the government alone cannot implement a successful recovery,” Eiweida notes. Successful culture-based recoveries in Colombia, Japan, the Philippines, and elsewhere have demonstrated that “communities, including their local organizations and businesses, must have a leading role in these processes, in order to set out relevant priorities and ensure execution that meets their needs,” he says.

Organizations seeking to prepare for or recover from disasters must also consider culture, both of the organization and the regions in which they operate. The culture of a place has a large impact on business continuity, says Malcolm Reid, CPP, managing director at risk consultancy firm Brison, LLC.

For example, Japan experiences a variety of natural disasters—such as tsunamis and earthquakes—but there is a culture of preparedness in businesses, communities, and schools. Infrastructure is built for disasters, technology like early warning systems or cellphone alerts are regularly used, and people train often—including sending schoolchildren on field trips to earthquake simulators.

“By comparison, the Caribbean region has lots of hurricanes,” Reid says, “but the culture of preparedness there is more laissez-faire.” Caribbean nations are very faith-oriented, he adds, and there is the feeling that God will take care of them, so they do not need as much active preparedness.

Within business, safety has taken the issue of companywide culture seriously. Associate Director of Business Services at Novartis Pharmaceuticals Brendan Monahan notes that every meeting starts with a “safety moment”—a 10- or 30-second segment that identifies who in the room is CPR-certified or how to stay safe in winter weather conditions.

Companies that devote this time to embedding safety in their company culture have seen big improvements in Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reportables, says Monahan, who is also chair of the ASIS International Crisis Management and Business Continuity Council.

Similarly, embedding business continuity into the culture of the organization takes continuous reinforcement and regular training.

“Culture is a key enabler for the process,” Reid says. “You cannot have a successful program—with good results—without engaging with culture.”

While regional differences should be considered for business continuity and recovery, it’s essential to start with a uniform, organizationwide framework and metrics, he says.

“The end goal doesn’t change, so your measurement of success shouldn’t change,” Reid explains. “But some countries have to address different risks. The organization has standard processes, but each country has slightly different processes and priorities for spending.”

In an earthquake-prone region, more disaster recovery funding could be allocated to planning for building inspections or engineers, shelters for employees, or a communications plan that would account for disrupted phone lines or lost power. In a region at higher risk for political conflict, such as Venezuela, more funding could be allocated for evacuations or additional guards.

“Business continuity starts at the top,” Reid says. “It’s the organization’s culture, made up of regional differences.”

Continuity also depends on agility and trust, says Erik de Vries, CPP, CEO and founder of The Netherlands-based security risk management firm DutchRisk bv.

“Companies that are globally strongly managed from a central location—that is, the head office decides more or less everything—might struggle to handle a local crisis,” he says. “If local business units or divisions have very limited decision-making authority and they are not used to having substantial empowerment, they will, during crises, also rely much on the head office. That can slow down resilience in the first crucial hours, especially if the head office is in a different time zone.”

This could result in shutting down production for hours until a decision can be sent from headquarters, either because of a hierarchical business structure or a lack of financial authority to make the call.

Regional and cultural differences play a role here as well; countries that were historically unaccepting of citizens taking the initiative likely still have those hierarchical tendencies embedded in managers’ minds, resulting in an unwillingness to make independent decisions in a crisis. In some Asian cultures, people tend to automatically say “yes” to their manager instead of “I don’t know” or “no,” which can result in additional confusion during a crisis, de Vries says.

“Try to learn how people in that area do business, then use that knowledge to train on how to make decisions in a crisis,” he adds.

Business continuity managers should also ensure that regional locations have access to the appropriate budget (within reason and strict limits) to make crisis-related decisions quickly and effectively, especially regarding evacuation plans for expats.

“The most important result of customizing crisis or recovery programs is that it shows local crisis or recovery teams that they are trusted and empowered to do what is needed,” de Vries says.