Sun, 21 Dec 2003

'Lost soul' finds himself by helping others

David Booth is one of those larger than life figures -- tall and lanky and given to sweeping gesticulations as he speaks. And talk he does, hour upon hour if he can, swamping the listener in a tidal wave of history, progress reports, statistics and general enthusiasm about his projects.

"We don't give money, rice, or handouts. We want to make sustainable, long-term change. That begins with education, education begins with children, and children must be healthy to learn" Booth said.

"Everything we do, from feeding programs to erosion control, stems from this core set of beliefs."

He moved to Bali in 1993, something of a "lost soul" seeking to reinvent himself. He left behind a string of careers in different countries, from the construction business in Africa to marketing in Britain, that he no longer found challenging.

He applied himself to a new vocation with missionary zeal -- to find, and change the course of, the most disadvantaged region in the country.

At first he thought he had found the poorest in an area of Sumba, but then realised that while the people there had low disposable income, their assets were relatively good. He was as surprised as anyone to eventually find what he sought so close to the comparative wealth of southern Bali.

Not that Booth was the first outsider to "discover" these villages. Various local and regional government agencies had made sporadic efforts, but not for many years and none of the efforts appeared to improve conditions long-term.

The lack of accurate maps and poor travelling conditions make it clear how easily local officials could lose contact with the living conditions people have endured.

And so the villages stayed, until Booth and his apparently boundless energy went to work on them.

Corruption often undermines even the most sincere efforts to alleviate poverty in this land. Decentralisation of power, instead of increasing government's ability to respond to the needs of the poor in their community, is often seen as another opportunity for a new layer of power brokers to take their cut.

Against this, small-scale projects like the East Bali Poverty Project, which can be genuinely responsive and are comparatively transparent, offer hope as models for effecting real change.

-- Jacqueline Mackenzie