A man prays in a cemetery affected by the January 12 earthquake in Port-au- Prince July 10, 2010 A man prays in a cemetery affected by the January 12 earthquake in Port-au- Prince July 10, 2010 Photo credit: REUTERS/St Felix Evens
Acts of God(s): the role of religion in Disaster Risk Reduction
by Andreana Reale, RMIT University September 2010

Most people in the world are religious. Particularly in the non-Western world, religion shapes societies to a degree that its salience goes almost without saying. Whether we acknowledge it or not, religion is a key force behind the way a community or society interacts with notions of development – or disaster. Western academics have not always caught on to this. While identity factors like gender, class and ethnicity are emerging as important considerations in the humanitarian field, religion attracts comparatively little attention. This may have something to do with the inherent secular bias of Western thought. It took female researchers to consider gender and black researchers to consider race: maybe it will require Muslims, Christians and Buddhists to bring to light the impact of religion. Unfortunately, those with a spiritual bent often feel compelled to leave their unique perspective in the temple or the mosque, conforming to a secular perspective in the way that women have often adopted a genderless voice in their writing.

The humanitarian and Disaster Risk Reduction field is, however, beginning to open up to considerations of religion – for example, academics are starting to contemplate the role of Christian churches in African development, and liberation theology is attracting some attention. In December 2009, the Centre for Risk and Community Safety at RMIT University held a forum at the Parliament of World’s Religions entitled ‘Faith, Community and Disaster Risk Reduction’, in which speakers addressed the important connection between religion and disasters. This article draws from the Parliament forum, reviewing the role of religion in disasters – from religious interpretations of disasters to the role religious organisations play in disaster mitigation, preparedness, response and reconstruction.

 

Religion and the natural world

The Western paradigm often sets people against nature. Natural events like floods and fires are seen as hazards that humans must contend with and conquer. In the ancient spiritualities of many indigenous traditions, however, humanity is inextricably linked to nature. Len Clarke, an indigenous Australian leader and educator, told the Parliament forum that far from being ‘acts of God(s)’, so-called ‘natural’ disasters are the consequences of humans abusing the earth. The earth reacts with droughts, floods and other disasters.

We often find effective disaster mitigation strategies within the traditions of indigenous communities. The Singas village in Papua New Guinea, for example, often faces flooding.[1] For generations houses have been built on stilts and emergency crops are grown on the mountainside for use during floods. Heavy rains and river behaviour are communicated and discussed, dispensing with the need for high-tech warning systems. A worldview that sees water primarily as a source of life, rather than danger, affects the way villagers prepare for and mitigate against floods.  

Religious and spiritual worldviews do not always have a positive impact on communities affected by disaster. Many religious leaders encourage us to think of disasters not as events that can be avoided through mitigation and preparedness, but as a kind of divine retribution. Another speaker at the Parliament forum, Pakistani academic Hafiz Aziz ur Rehman, explained that, in the aftermath of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, many Islamic leaders interpreted the disaster as punishment from God. Similarly, both Catholics and Evangelicals in Morolica, Honduras, seemed to regard a devastating flood as a result of Hurricane Mitch as part of God’s design or punishment.[2] Despite the fact that the community in question was situated on the flood plains of two rivers, few people conceded that the vulnerable location was a contributing factor, and only a small number saw relocation to a safer site as a priority.

 

Case study: the Aitape tsunami

The 1998 Aitape tsunami was one of Papua New Guinea’s worst-ever disasters.[3] Over 2,000 people died and 10,000 more were forced to permanently relocate. The devastation was predictable, with severe underdevelopment exacerbating the effects of the tsunami and hampering the response. Yet pastors from the Combined Churches Organisation (CCO), made up of local churches, saw the disaster’s origin not in the vulnerability of the people and the society – or even in the scientific causes behind the creation of large waves – but in the sinful hearts of the people, whom God was forced to punish because of their lack of Christian faith. By establishing new churches in the tsunami’s aftermath, the pastors saw themselves as undertaking a kind of disaster-mitigation programme – ensuring that future disasters did not take place due to sin and faithlessness. CCO pastors also engaged in more direct disaster relief and reconstruction. Pastors were sent to the devastated area for periods stretching from months to years, working alongside locals to build houses, plant gardens and provide pastoral care.

Many locals saw the disaster as intentional – caused by foreigners motivated by rumours of oil or precious jewel deposits in the area. There were mysterious, supernatural elements to the disaster – people noted burns and cuts that did not bleed and sightings of ‘unidentified objects’. Since the disaster was thought to have been intentional, aid was not seen as an altruistic gift (as the donors viewed it) but as compensation. Locals referred to the aid as ‘blood money’. Problems were caused because the process of disaster-relief provision was at odds with local understandings of the disaster. Compensation claims have a detailed process of negotiation and execution; instead, Western donors assumed that people should passively ‘receive’ aid, rather than actively participate in its distribution and allocation.

Thus, there was a clash between the Western, secular assumptions of donors, and local understandings of the disaster. The CCO pastors – who may seem to some secular Westerners to have a backward, unhelpful worldview – engaged more effectively with locals. Their understanding of the disaster as something intentional was more in line with local perspectives than a scientific-rational view. Their long-term efforts, embedded in and working alongside communities, were perhaps more appropriate for people who needed, not to passively receive, but actively participate.

 

Religion and culture in disaster relief

Religious bodies or religiously-motivated NGOs often enjoy a degree of cultural alignment with locals, which can be invaluable in a disaster or humanitarian situation. This is particularly the case in volatile Muslim areas such as Afghanistan, where there is suspicion of Christian and Western aid bodies.[4] Islamic Relief Worldwide, a British Muslim faith-based NGO, is one of the few NGOs with a reasonable presence around Kandahar. Local partner organisations of Christian NGO TEAR Australia, although Christian, use implementing teams made up mainly of Afghan Muslims. In some places, it is simply untenable to have Western, Christian practitioners working in the field.

Religious similarities do not always equate to a cultural match. Islamic Relief’s expatriate staff are from many different ethnic backgrounds, and as Jonathan Benthall puts it, ‘It would be naïve to assume that because a Bangladeshi and an Acehnese are both Muslim, the cultural differences between them will somehow dissolve’.[5] Similarly, although much of the non-Western world is Christian, cultural differences between locals and rich, Western Christian humanitarian workers are likely to be stark.

Local religious bodies often have a great advantage in disaster situations. Local communities, organisations and governments have the greatest capacity to offer assistance. These bodies are embedded in the local community, speak the local language and understand the local culture. They know who in the community is most vulnerable and what people and infrastructure is available to assist. Religious institutions often have their own facilities, such as a prayer space that can be used for shelter or the distribution of food. Local bodies are already on the ground and can respond immediately. They are also often still involved in helping a community recover long after outside NGOs and UN bodies have gone home.

Rehman made this point at the Parliament forum in relation to the Kashmir earthquake: it was local Islamic NGOs and volunteers from across the faith community that came to the aid of victims, speeding up the response process significantly. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, unaffected temples in Phang Nha, Thailand, became places of refuge for survivors, with monks caring for the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of survivors and conducting cremation ceremonies for the dead.[6] Similarly, churches and other religious bodies worked together to provide relief for victims of the 2009 bushfires in Victoria, Australia.

Local religious institutions are often in a better position to respond than governments, particularly where governments are characterised by corruption and incompetence. Following the Aitape tsunami, local, provincial and national governments failed to provide relief, leaving a space that was filled largely by the Catholic Church, which even constructed basic infrastructure such as roads and bridges in order to deliver aid effectively. In Fiji, the Church provides disaster-affected Christians with food and provisions over and above government aid. Churches are able to channel resources from overseas counterparts and provide support on all levels, including reconstruction of housing, relocation and limited financial aid.[7]

 

Recognising religion in development and DRR

Religious bodies and structures often wield power and authority. Since they are also often at the forefront of development and DRR efforts, it is integral that development practitioners and disaster workers consult with and work beside these groups. Ruth Maetala, a researcher, church leader and development worker in Solomon Islands, told the Parliament forum that Church leaders in her country wielded more influence than any other form of authority, including chiefs and politicians. Religious groups often understand – or are indeed at the heart of – important community dynamics and power structures. This is especially true where local religious institutions are key providers of education, health services, emergency relief and general development.

On a recent trip to Solomon Islands, I found that the Solomon Islands Christian Association – the main ecumenical body in the country – was working closely with the National Disaster Management Office, as well as AusAID and the National Council of Churches in Australia, to implement village-level disaster plans. While the government structure does not reach people in remote communities, every village has at least one church. The church includes women’s groups, youth groups, pastors and chiefs, and the programme utilises this structure to identify disaster risks, solutions and evacuation plans. The programme is an example of a successful religious/secular partnership, bolstering resilience in disaster-vulnerable communities.

Although religious networks are increasingly recognised in governmental and UN disaster mitigation and response planning, they can also be marginalised from the development and disaster relief professions. In Aceh, Muhammadiyah, a reformist Muslim social organisation with 30 million members in Indonesia, acted as an ad hoc national network of communication in the wake of the 2004 tsunami. They drew up elaborate reconstruction plans, but could not find the funding to implement them. In fact, despite the importance of Islam in Indonesia, no Muslim group was awarded a USAID contract for post-tsunami work.[8]

As humanitarian academics and practitioners, we need to understand that our secularism is unique to us: the majority of the world’s population not only hold to religious beliefs, but their lives and their communities are often centred around religious rites and authority. Religion should therefore form an integral part of any context analysis. Religious bodies and authorities need to be engaged and listened to; religious beliefs and practices that might affect disaster relief and recovery must be identified. Religion, though not always positive, can be a source of resilience for millions of individuals and communities – a resilience that must be acknowledged if we are to help people in the midst of disaster.

 

Andreana Reale is a researcher at the Centre for Risk and Community Safety at RMIT University, Melbourne. She would like to thank Ilan Kelman, J. C. Gaillard, Ben Wisner, John Handmer and Peter Fitzgerald for their support and feedback on this article.

 


[1] J. Mercer and I. Kelman, ‘Living with Floods in Singas, Papua New Guinea’, in Rajib Shaw, Noralene Uy and Jennifer Baumwool, Indigenous Knowledge for Disaster Risk Reduction: Good Practices and Lessons Learned from Experiences in the Asia-Pacific Region, UNISDR, 2008.

[2] M. Ensor, ‘Disaster Evangelism: Religion as a Catalyst for Change in Post-Mitch Honduras’, International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, 21(2), 2003.

[3] P. Fountain et al., ‘Christianity, Calamity, and Culture: The Involvement of Christian Churches in the 1998 Aitape Tsunami Disaster Relief’, The Contemporary Pacific, 16(2), 2004.

[4] B. De Cordier, ‘Faith-based Aid, Globalisation and the Humanitarian Frontline: An Analysis of Western-based Muslim Aid Organisations’, Disasters, 33(4), 2009.

[5] J. Benthall, ‘Have Islamic Aid Agencies a Privileged Relationship in Majority Muslim Areas? The Case of Post-tsunami Reconstruction in Aceh’, Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, June 2008.

[6] M. Falk, ‘Recovery and Buddhist Practices in the Aftermath of the Tsunami in Southern Thailand’, Religion, 40, 2010.

[7] M. Gillard and D. Paton, ‘Disaster Stress Following a Hurricane: The Role of Religious Differences in the Fijian Islands’, The Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies, Issue 2, 1999.

[8] Benthall, ‘Have Islamic Aid Agencies a Privileged Relationship in Majority Muslim Areas?’.

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