The Whole of Culture Approach: A Research Agenda to Support Transition From Risk Management to Risk Sensitive Development

Mark Pelling and Maud Borie
Tomorrow's Cities
Working paper
March 2021

Managing disaster risk is about a good deal more than disaster risk management. Risk and loss arise from the accumulated legacy of decision-making and decision-making contexts that enmesh the environmental, technological and human to go far beyond the purview of risk managers, humanitarian agencies and first responders. How then to orient disasters research to better open development processes and attendant governance as central components for risk reduction? The whole of culture approach offers one response to this challenge. Influence over disaster risk and loss outcomes is shaped by the intersection of individual decision-making processes with informal and formal norms, organisational structures and tools. Human behaviour as part of development does not have a linear association with policy, norms or capacity but brings multiple, often hidden and open-ended, interactions between identity, behaviour, framing systems of legislation and social norms cross-cut by knowledge.

Knowledge is always contested and contextual. Science methodologies attempt to make their social framing and underlying assumptions transparent, but are not always successful in communicating these. Once in the public domain even the most transparent and careful science products become part of a knowledge ecosystem including local knowledge, personal experience, social media and the vested communications of government, civil society and private sector interests (Nalau et al 2018). We argue that amongst this complexity, knowledge production, control, interpretation and use offers a key to understanding action within development that influences risk. This view holds for individuals at risk and also for planners, investors, managers and politicians holding influential decision-making positions. The perspective offered derives from contemporary work on social theory including assemblage theory and science and technology studies and from methodological experience, especially in coproduction, interdisciplinarity and action research.

The whole of culture approach is proposed not only because of recent innovations but also in response to a renewed sense of urgency around the need for joined up action on the root causes of risk. Risk root causes are embedded in ongoing and everyday development vision and actions, yet risk management finds it difficult to be a central concern for development actors. This is a longstanding challenge. In 1983, James Hewitt observed that disaster risk management was an archipelago to development – connected but at the same time held at distance, informing but marginal to development vision and outcomes. This characterisation of a disaster risk science and management toolkit somehow removed from the levers of decision-making continues today. Lewis and Kelman (2007) capture the current concern by calling for an extension in the focus of risk reduction to confront also risk creation – the knowing or accidental creation of vulnerability and hazard exposure through development decisions from the household to the international. This concern is heightened as processes of globalisation and interdependent infrastructure systems (including those of the informal sector) mean that risk and loss can cascade across places with impacts moving across sectors (UNDRR 2013). Already heightened by the observed effects of climate change as an impact multiplier on development failure, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this concern. The impacts of COVID-19 and management responses have demonstrated how many of the root causes of vulnerability to natural hazards (overcrowded dwellings, inadequate access to clean water, limited primary health care, educational inequality, social marginalisation, exposure to violence, distrust of official agencies) are made worse by the predominant economic and social structures at the heart of development. These inequalities have long been recorded, the association with disaster risk long known, but development practice has been consistently ineffective in taking action.

The paper first accounts for the ways in which culture has been brought into risk and disaster studies and then describes the long-standing desire from researchers and practitioners to better understand and act on risk creation as a development, not a risk management concern. The whole of culture approach is built from innovation across assemblage thinking, science and technology studies, interdisciplinarity and coproduction which are presented and then summarised before being applied to an urban research programme to test the relevance of the approach.