Humanitarian Crises: The Need for Cultural Competence and Local Capacity Building

  • Inka Weissbecker
  • Jennifer CzinczEmail author
Part of the International and Cultural Psychology book series (ICUP)


Humanitarian crises are already causing significant suffering in many regions throughout the world, and climate change is likely to worsen the problem. With rising temperatures, climate scientists predict an increase in droughts and floods, as well as more severe tropical storms and other adverse weather events such as heat waves (IPCC, 2007). Such extreme weather events can manifest as natural disasters, which are defined as causing a “serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society causing widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses which exceed the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources” (International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2004). Humanitarian emergencies, on the other hand, are characterized by additional factors such as the need for external assistance, risks of ongoing excess deaths, diseases, and malnutrition (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 1999). Complex humanitarian emergencies can result from additional factors such as ongoing armed conflict, leading to extensive violence and loss of life, massive displacement of people, widespread damage to societies and economies, the need for large-scale, multifaceted humanitarian assistance, as well as hindrance to such assistance by political and military constraints and security risks to relief workers (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 1999). The extent of humanitarian emergencies can be measured by using rates of mortality, malnutrition, and diseases (e.g. measles, cholera, diarrhea), as well as by the breakdown of governmental structures and human rights abuses (Toole & Waldman, 1990). An increase in humanitarian crises has been recognized as yet another likely result of climate change, with the international and humanitarian communities working on identifying areas of high risk, adaptation mechanisms, and responses. Issues of mental health and psychosocial well-being have received increasing consideration in the area of humanitarian crises, which also has implications in the context of climate change. The goal of this chapter is threefold: to provide a framework for conceptualizing vulnerability at the individual, community, and country levels; to shed light on important challenges and cross-cultural considerations in the humanitarian field; and to explore ways in which psychologists and mental health professionals can contribute to responding to humanitarian crises, promoting adaptation, and building the evidence base for effective intervention.


Relief Disaster Humanitarian Mental health 


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.WashingtonUSA
  2. 2.Yale University School of MedicineNew HavenUSA

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