A mangy dog snuffles through a festering pile of rubbish. Rusting car hulks sit on plots of waste ground surrounded by thousands of shards of broken glass, glinting in the sun. Clouds of dust billow between dilapidated homes with broken fences and sagging roofs. The grass around them is cardboard-brown and parched from lack of rain. It could be anywhere in the developing world - the outskirts of Nairobi, perhaps, or Mexico City. But this is Bourke, an Outback town in New South Wales, 785km northwest of Sydney. Brian Smith, 27, a local Aboriginal man, leans against the fence outside his wooden bungalow as the sun streams through the gum trees. Along with more than half the town's indigenous population, he is looking for a job. In common with many young Aboriginal men, he has just spent a spell in prison, for non-payment of fines 'and other small stuff'. He is a big man, shy but friendly. He has three children under the age of five. 'There's nothing here for Aboriginal people,' he says. 'There are no jobs, so kids steal cars and stuff. Last night they rammed one into my fence. Life is getting worse, for me anyway.' Occasionally he picks up work in the nearby cotton fields, but with one of the worst droughts in years tightening its grip on much of Australia, this year's crop may not be planted. In any case, it is back-breaking work for little pay. Cotton 'chipping' entails walking between the plants and hoeing weeds along rows which can extend for a kilometre. More than 200 years after British colonisation, and 35 years after Aborigines were finally granted citizenship and the vote, they remain on the lowest rung of society. The statistics make for depressing reading. In the nearby town of Wilcannia, the average life expectancy for Aboriginal men is 36 years, for women 42 years. Nationally, indigenous people die 20 years earlier than non-indigenous Australians. Aboriginal men are 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than the rest of the Australian population. Last month a government inquiry reported that Aboriginal women living in rural areas in Western Australia are 45 times more likely to be victims of domestic violence than those in the rest of society. In the cinnamon-red central deserts, Aboriginal teenagers sniff cans of petrol, destroying the nerve endings in their brains and ending up in wheelchairs. Earlier this year an Aboriginal leader declared that there was not a single socially functioning indigenous community in the whole of the Northern Territory. Problems start from an early age. 'Children go to school without breakfast and without having had dinner the night before,' said Lana Rose, who works in Bourke for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (Atsic), a kind of parallel government for Australia's 360,000 indigenous people. 'Kids are sleeping two or three to a bed. They have lice. In winter they're sent to school without a jumper or even shoes. Then the teachers wonder why they don't concentrate in class.' In Bourke, 75 per cent of children leave school by the age of 15. Some have not even learned to read and write by that stage. Children as young as seven regularly skip school and roam the streets. From poor education stems a range of ancillary problems. Jobs are hard to come by. Teenagers in isolated country towns become bored, and resort to small acts of vandalism. As they get older they may progress to car theft, burglary and assault. They start drinking. Their health deteriorates. Girls get pregnant as young as 14. Domestic violence prevails - and the next generation is similarly disadvantaged. At night the shops along Bourke's main street are protected with steel shutters. Aborigines, who make up about 50 per cent of the town's population of 3,500, are over-represented in the courts. 'They account for 95 per cent of cases,' said Kerry Howarth, an Aboriginal client services officer at Bourke magistrates court. 'A lot of it's associated with alcohol and gambling.' Sam Jeffries is the chairman of the Murdi Paaki Aboriginal regional council, a vast area covering 360,000 sq km of outback in New South Wales, stretching 1,000km to the border with Victoria and South Australia. He believes weaning Aboriginal people away from lethargy and welfare dependency is the hardest job in Australia. 'It's a vicious cycle. You can't just take one thing and fix it. You have to chip away at everything. Ultimately, if you want to make inroads into the dysfunction, you have to give them jobs.' A ruler-straight road leads 95km east of Bourke, through scrub and sprawling cattle properties, to the town of Brewarrina, known by the locals simply as 'Bre'. Like Bourke, it sits on the banks of the mighty Darling River and in the 19th century grew rich as a river port, exporting wool downstream by paddle steamer. Those days are long gone and today Brewarrina has a decidedly ragged appearance, with dogs chasing passing cars and graffiti daubed on shop fronts. Of the 1,500 inhabitants, 86 per cent are indigenous. The average household income is just A$11,000 (HK$47,000) a year - well below the poverty line. But local Aboriginal people are determined to make a difference. Through the Community Development Employment Programme, a kind of work-for-the-dole scheme, they are building 45 new houses and refurbishing 78 old ones. Eighteen Aboriginal teenagers have been taken on as apprentices and should emerge in four years' time as qualified carpenters. Project manager Leonard Hill, who is Aboriginal, said: 'It's the single greatest opportunity that these guys will get to make a difference to their lives. The main problem is that there is no guarantee that there will be enough work for them at the end of it.' Anne Keogh, a white former nurse, is chief executive of the town's Aboriginal health centre, which deals with the consequences of high unemployment and low income every day. Aborigines' fondness for greasy food, sweets and fizzy drinks means 75 per cent are diabetic or borderline diabetic - compared to less than 25 per cent of the white population. 'The fast food industry has crucified health - whoever invented Coca-Cola needs shooting,' Ms Keogh said. 'I see families eating chips and gravy on white bread and it makes me shudder. But it's quick, cheap and it fills you up.' The attitude of white Australians to Aborigines ranges from sympathy to exasperation or outright racism. Many feel that indigenous people receive too many special privileges. Mick Keenan edits Bourke's newspaper, the Western Herald. He says there is a minority on both sides of the race divide who sour relations. 'The big question is what do you do to improve people's lives? No one seems to be able to answer that.' The teachers at Gainmarra Birrilee pre-school in Brewarrina are working hard to break down the barriers. They are teaching their four- and five-year-old charges, both Aboriginal and white, basic words from the local tribal languages Ngenba and Murrawari. The word for kangaroo, for instance, is bundah. 'The white kids love it,' said teacher Rosie Gibson, who is indigenous. 'Most parents are very supportive.' Along with providing meaningful jobs, teaching Aborigines about their 40,000-year-old culture and history is seen as key to improving their confidence and self-esteem. John Mackay, an Atsic officer in Bourke, would like to see Aboriginal schoolchildren taught how to make boomerangs and bark canoes, how to skin and cook a kangaroo, and other traditional skills which are in danger of dying out. It is all part of eradicating the sense of dispossession felt by so many Aborigines, who are ill-equipped to be successful in the society foisted upon them. 'We want to put Aboriginal people in the driver's seat rather than the passenger seat,' said Sam Jeffries. 'We have to move from an entrenched welfare mentality to sustainable development. I believe there is hope - there is a push for the right for people to govern themselves.' Until that happens, many Aboriginal people will continue to suffer social and economic hardships which should have no place in a rich, developed nation like Australia. The solution to improving their lives and those of their children is proving as elusive as the mirages which shimmer like quicksilver at the end of long, dusty desert roads.