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Colonialism and Welfare

Social Policy and the British Imperial Legacy


Edited by James Midgley & David Piauchaud


Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2011

Hardcover. xii+211 p. ISBN 978-1849808484. £65.00


Reviewed by Adam Stephenson

Université de Picardie Jules Verne (Amiens)


This book is a wake-up call. It wishes to persuade us that contemporary social policy in much of the world cannot be understood without reference to its origins in imperialism. This has not been sufficiently appreciated until now for several reasons. Colonialism and international welfare are studied in different university departments using different methods and with different aims; and certain aspects of the raw materials themselves seem to underscore this disciplinary separation: welfare is fairly invisible in much of the history of British colonialism for instance, not so much because of the abundant ‘ill-fare’ produced by this as because of the low priority accorded to social policy by many of its protagonists; similarly, in social policy studies, the colonial background to welfare regimes is hidden by ahistorical typologies such as the familiar division into ‘liberal’, ‘corporatist-statist’ and ‘social-democratic’ welfare states.

Based on a 2010 symposium at the London School of Economics, it is a collection of articles intended to begin filling the gap between social policy research and imperial historiography. After an introduction and two chapters of background, a series of case studies examine the way in which social policy has evolved in a number of territories formerly ruled by Britain and asks to what extent their current welfare systems have been affected by the imperial legacy. Finally the editors, in their ‘Conclusion’, attempt to bring the material together.

This is not easy, as they admit. There are no simple general conclusions to be drawn about relations between imperialism and the welfare regimes of former colonies. The societies concerned were extremely diverse – New Zealand had little to do with India or Africa, and the West Indies were something else again, British involvement was different in each territory, and different elements of welfare systems were introduced at different times and for different reasons. Furthermore, as Midgley explains in his magisterial opening overview, ‘there is currently no standard framework for documenting and analysing colonialism and welfare’. This is apparent in the contributions here, which talk in very different styles about a wide variety of different subjects.

Nevertheless, some generalisations seem to hold good: State responsibility for welfare came late – with the exception of those colonies in which the English Poor Law applied – and was always parsimonious; colonial regimes, supposedly self-financing and with little manpower, were more concerned with controlling territory, collecting taxes, administering justice and creating conditions favourable to trade than with welfare; this was left to missionaries, charities and above all – in keeping with the policy of indirect rule – to the different communities themselves; when the State did get involved, it began with the settler communities rather than the indigenous ones, first in education and then health, and – as in Britain itself – by regulation, subsidies and gap-filling rather than large initiatives. (There were exceptions: the role of Australia and New Zealand as ‘social laboratories’ in the first half of the 20th century is noted by Paul Smyth in his article, ‘The British social policy legacy in Australia’, and necessity made 19th-century Hong Kong a pioneer in housing, sanitary intervention and other domains.)

The different phases of 20th-century history marked colonial welfare provision in comprehensible ways: in the 1920s and 30s, international politics and economics – on the one hand, the Russian Revolution, the League of Nations, the International Labour Organisation, on the other the Great Depression – pushed colonial governments and then Whitehall and Westminster into taking greater social responsibilities; World War Two, the UN and the Cold War led to new welfare expansion in many colonies, with apparently little anticipation of decolonisation; independence brought governments which, for both nationalist and ‘modernising’ reasons hoped to build modern welfare states on these foundations.

Midgley identifies three generations of academic interpretation of these facts. The first, going back at least to Mair’s Welfare in the British Colonies (1944) is largely in sympathy with the ideas of modernisation theory – welfare is an essential part of economic development – and manages to ignore the specifically colonial aspects of the process; the second, on the contrary, represented well by Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972), sees development itself as a regressive process; the third, more in harmony with ‘post-colonial’ perspectives, insists on the frequent inappropriateness – or worse – of welfare schemes to local needs pre- and post-independence, an indicative title being Midgley’s own Professional Imperialism: Social Work in the Third World (1981).

All three of these approaches stress the continuity of the progression from colonialism to self-government in the domain of social policy: the legacy of ideas, structures and personnel is more important than the break represented by political independence. (The role of the LSE, the host institution for this symposium, might be mentioned here: ever since its Fabian foundation in 1895, it has been a great source of social policy and it has trained hundreds of Third World leaders, senior public servants, employees of the World Bank, IMF, UN agencies, major NGOs, etc.) 

The articles here bear witness both to these different approaches and to the difficulty of making generalisations. Two of them present a not unsympathetic view. Ruth Kattamuri’s chapter on ‘Higher education in India : The legacy of colonialism’, while insisting on the elitist and utilitarian nature of what was attempted, argues that the unity of the country and its recent commercial successes owe a lot to the fact that the educated classes have been educated in English. John Harrison’s nuanced picture of ‘The colonial legacy and social policy in the British Caribbean’ traces post-independence welfare systems back to the 1940 Moyne Report. This was a reaction to unrest provoked by social conditions (as elsewhere, State welfare was supposed to remedy problems caused in large part by colonialism itself). Despite both pre- and post-independence advances, Harrison notes several mismatches between supply and need: the lack of curriculum relevance in an education system imported wholesale from Britain, the alienness of spatial arrangements in housing projects which quickly degenerated into slums and a ‘culture of poverty’ approach which tended to ignore factors such as economics, racism or isolation. Still, there was progress; but much of this imperial legacy was undone by post-1980s neoliberalism, he says (something we find in Edwell Kaseke’s article on Zimbabwe and David Piauchaud’s on Tanzania as well; and Kwong-leung Tang finds the same thing in Hong Kong, but only since the 1997 return to China).

Leila Patel’s contribution, ‘Race, inequality and social welfare : South Africa’s imperial legacy’, on the other hand, sees the legacy as entirely negative. ‘South Africa achieved its independence in 1994’, she begins; before that, over three hundred years, traditional indigenous social provision had been undermined by both British colonialism and apartheid, and only since then has the State at last begun trying to make universal the previously race-based social assistance schemes.

Several of the articles gathered here stress the inappropriateness of the imperial legacy of welfare policy rather than its malignancy or complicity with race-based capitalism. Sometimes this can be the result of the one-size-fits-all approach that we associate with European universalism. Edwell Kaseke, James Midgley and David Piauchaud’s article, ‘The British influence on social security policy : Provident funds in Asia and Africa’ presents a good example of this. Provident funds are individual savings schemes for retirement to which both workers and employers have to contribute. They differ from social insurance, in which those who live longest get most, and from pay-as-you-go schemes in which current pensions are financed by current contributors. They were chosen by British colonial administrations and by independent governments usually taking advice from British sources, mainly because they required hardly any State funding. They are to be found in many former British colonies, including Malaysia, India, Ceylon, Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia and Uganda, but are much rarer elsewhere. While in Singapore they have been a source of prosperity, in African countries with high levels of inflation and corruption ‘they have represented, in effect, a form of theft in the name of providing for old age’.

David Piauchaud, in his article, ‘Fabianism, social policy and colonialism : The case of Tanzania’, finds the Fabian influence on President Julius Nyerere to be another example of an inappropriate post-colonial legacy which ended in disaster for the whole country: ‘the importation of ideas from the industrialised world to a largely agricultural setting simply did not work’. Sometimes the problem is not the idea of ‘one-size-fits-all’, but the opposite: N. Jayaram’s article, ‘Caste, corporate disabilities and compensatory discrimination in India : Colonial legacy and post-colonial paradox’ traces back the post-independence practice of positive discrimination for certain castes, ‘scheduled tribes’ and ‘other backward classes’ to 19th-century imperial ethnography which essentialised caste, and to political reforms beginning in 1919 which provided statutory advantages in employment and government to members of supposedly disadvantaged groups. Today, despite scandalous abuse, this positive discrimination cannot be got rid of, even though it is extremely unjust, a constant source of friction and an insuperable obstacle to the formation of a ‘ “modern”, casteless society’.

This book is full of interest for anyone who wishes to learn more about welfare policy in the British Empire and its aftermath. However, in a collection about the British imperial legacy, I miss any reference to the Commonwealth, and would have liked more detailed comparisons with welfare regimes in other empires, notably the French. One of the weaknesses of this collection, perhaps, is that nearly all the contributors are specialists in social policy, not historians or otherwise able to speak in detail and with authority about the historical background to State intervention, the role of the missionaries, welfare in traditional societies, etc. Sometimes the authors make contentious or apparently contradictory statements which, in the nature of the format, they cannot consolidate or clarify. And several are not very good writers. Chapter 1, ‘The British Empire and world history : Welfare imperialism and “soft” power in the rise and fall of colonial rule’ is a disgrace: illiterate, vulgar – I spare the reader examples – and ignorant. Tea, we are informed, was produced, by ‘plantation slavery’, the slave trade was abolished in 1833, Benjamin Disraeli was a liberal P.M. who in 1897 told the public that ‘you cannot have an omelette without breaking eggs’, the 1929 Colonial Development Act was called the ‘Colonial Welfare Act’, soft power – a modish notion made much of at the end of the article – was ‘invented by Nye (no first name) in 2004’ rather than before 1990, etc.). One wonders whether the editors had actually read the work they approved and with which they wished to be associated.

Still, all of this reinforces the central contention of the authors that more work needs tobe done on the links between colonialism and welfare; a good place to start would be with the excellent bibliographies at the end of each article. And this book will be useful for anyone wishing to think about decolonisation, and in particular about the question of how far it represented a break, how far a continuation of what went before.


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