I was recently invited to become a panellist for the session on ‘Natural Hazards Communications, Education, and Policy-Science-Public Interface’ at the 2021 Natural Hazards conference organised by the Earth Observatory of Singapore. The panel focused on
communications before, during and after disasters between researchers, the public, policy makers, and practitioners, including uncertainty, visualisation, education and scenarios. I shared our Philippine experience of conducting an interactive forum on disaster and climate change for women as part of Curiosity's consulting work for WeDpro, a women's rights and education NGO. As part of the panel, we needed to present with certain questions in mind:
What in your experience are the main pitfalls in communication? How do we avoid miscommunication?
How do you use social media effectively?
What are your top tips for communicating with government?
I focused my discussion on the typhoon narratives gathered from those who decided NOT to evacuate during Typhoon Haiyan, including lack of knowledge about storm surges, believing that "the poor cannot possibly prepare for disasters", that "God decides who lives or dies during disaster" and that "women don't know anything about rebuilding after disaster". A more detailed explanation of the components of the disaster and climate change forum conceptualised based on this ethnographic understanding can be found here. A draft of the book chapter on non-evacuation decision-making (for the book Disaster Archipelago), which I first authored and co-wrote with cognitive scientists of the EU-funded Marie Curie COGNOVO pogramme can be downloaded here:
During my presentation, I underscored that communication for science and political literacy needs to consider beliefs about disaster based on gender, class, and religion. In my own multidisciplinary work in disaster an anthropologist, well-meaning colleagues from other disciplines will sometimes tell me that cultural considerations are "not the 'real issue'", "they are the 'softer' aspects of disaster management", or are"little things that matter"compared to, say, risk modelling.
I disagree. And I push back on this push back. Anthropologists understand "culture" as the "software" with which humans operate. The process of ascribing meaning to such concepts as "gender", "religion", and "class" informs a wide range of human activities, including, at the macro level, international policy, how governments are run, humanitarian priorities, and at the micro-level, decisions about where to live, whether or not to marry, or where to work. "Culture" is a BIG deal, and its influence on how people think about disaster and behave during catastrophe has long been studied by social scientists of various persuasions, not just anthropologists. I was thankful that the our panel at the Natural Hazards Conference recognised the importance of socio-cultural issues, with greater involvement form social scientists in the area of science literacy and disaster management policy identified as a major opportunity in our ideation session.