Year: 2006
Working paper number: 164
Author: Seekings, Jeremy
Unit: SSU

In 1937-38, the British colony of Barbados in the south-east Caribbean introduced old-age pensions for the poor.  This occurred without much comment from scholars at the time, and has attracted no subsequent attention.  But it was an exceptional reform.  Not only was it the first country or colony in the world to introduce pensions for elderly people not of European origin, but its lead was followed by only a small number of other territories in the following five decades.  This radical innovation occurred in Barbados as part of a slow movement towards social (as well as political) reform, driven by a combination of reformist colonial officials and an emergent black political leadership against the opposition of the conservative white planter and merchant elite.  The need for reform was deep poverty in an economy dominated by the sugar industry: the open economy made it difficult to redress poverty through wages and employment-related benefits, and patterns of land ownership made it difficult to redress poverty through the promotion of peasant agriculture.  Social policy reform predated the outbreak of riots in 1937, but riots certainly strengthened the reformist coalition and weakened conservative opposition.  Tax-financed social reforms provided a compromise solution to the partial amelioration, but not the prevention, of poverty.  Together with labour and political reforms, they made possible a weak form of 'welfare capitalism' in the face of a potentially deepening radical challenge.

Publication file: wp164.pdf