Set against the backdrop of a delapidated foreign shanty, a tearful dirty young face, the eyes pained with hunger, startled magazine readers several years ago. The relief agency responsible for recording the scene included a caption which read essentially: "You can help, or you can turn the page."

If such an ad ran in Washington today to acknowledge Africa's millions, it must be assumed most readers would turn the page, because this city is largely either unaware of the widespread hunger or unresponsive.

Yet prolonged famine along the eastern coast of Africa will mark its eighth year of misery next month, havingspread from the Sahel region of the northwest to Somalia in the east, from the middle of Sudan to the tip of Mozambique. Of 26 countries expected to suffer abnormal food shortages this year, according to the United Nation's World Food Council, 17 are in Africa.

Ongoing drought and intermittent border wars will commit as many as 60 million people, mostly women and children, to hunger and possibly starvation in Africa this year. At the same time, up to 900,000 refugees have poured into Somalia seeking escape from the country's escalating war with Ethiopia.

The world began to learn of the crisis a year and a half ago, when the first refugees trickled over the Somalian border and newspapers dotted their pages with the hollow faces of slow death. But the Washington metropolitan area, home of one of the most densely middle-class populations and one of the larger middle-income black populations in the country, has this year, for example, collected only about $36,000 for Africare, the most prominent Africa relief organization in the area.

Members of the District chapter raised only $10,000 last year, $7,000 of which produced a publicity recording by Miss Lillian, President Carter's mother, encouraging further donations. (Though Africare's total assets have nearly doubled since last year, the increase came from government contracts, while donations from individuals dropped by 22 percent nationally.) By contrast, the Washington Metropolitan chapter of the Sierra Club, an organization devoted to environmental concerns, has raised about $102,000 from its members this year. "The statement you sometimes get is that we have starvation and those other problems here," said Leo Pickett, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia who serves as president of the local Africare chapter. "But I always thought that if I can awaken in folk some concern about Africa, maybe that'll awaken some sleeping pride in people, to do something to help people here."

C. Payne Lucas, executive director of Africare, blames the lack of response on an information void.

"I think (contributions) are related to awareness," Lucas said. "Two years ago, (fundraising) was directed tothe Sahel . . . and we had welfare mothers coming in off the streets bringing in their money. Whereas some people have called Somalia a silent tragedy -- alot of people in this town don't even know it's happening."

The Reverend Andrew Fowler, pastor of the Capital View Baptist Church and chairman of the Committee of 100 ministers, was forthright in an interview last week, simply admitting: "I don't know anything about it. I have not observed anything in the papers about it. I guess I've been missing things. But if the situation is as you say it is, that is, if it's a crisis situation, we'll get right on it and study it."

Some groups, asked about slow-paced relief efforts, cited internal difficulties or a lagging schedule.

"It's not that we're not interested," said Pamela McCurty, coordinator of American University's black student group, "but that this organization was regenerating itself in the past year. With the funds that we're appropriated we have to be very tactical with how we disseminate them. The interest is here, but we have not yet formulated how we go about (meeting) African concerns."

Robert Adu-Asare, president of Howard University's Pan-African Association and a citizen of Ghana, noted: "We haven't gotten into that yet, but we cannot rule it out completely."

Until recent months the African drought did not appear to the world as a dramatic crisis, but rather as an unfortunate nexus of bad luck and poor management. World cereal production, the mainstay of the African diet, dropped by 4 percent last year, the second drop in as many years, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

The decline aggravated a downward slide in per capita food production in Africa that began two decades ago. Starvation and hunger have stalked parts of the African continent since the drought of the 1973-74 devastated the Sahel region of the northwest and, in the east, much of Ethiopia.

Relief effots ultimately helped ease the crisis, but not before hunger and starvation related diseases killed an estimated 200,000 people in Ethiopia and, in 1974, massive discontent helped topple the government of the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.

During the 1973 food shortage, however, many Americans -- and particularly blacks -- put aside their own concerns about lengthening gas lines and an imminent recession to pressure Congress for stepped-up aid to the region. The U.S. government became the largest food donor in the stricken area, but private groups also raised and distributed supplies.

Africare, which was founded and is administered largely by blacks, raised about $230,000 nationally and about $33,000 locally for its Famine Relief Fund in 1974, in $5 and $10 contributions from several thousand people.

"Our base has always been small contributors," said Lucas. "Most of our money comes out of Northeast and Southeast. We get a lot $1 contributors. Of course, when upper Northwest does contribute it tends to be $25 and above."

Lucas also indicated that a rocky domestic economy discourages giving. Census figures tells another story: While median income for black D.C. families is not the highest in the nation, when compared with states that have black populations of 100,000 or more, the District has one of the nation's lowest percentages of blacks living below the poverty line. And the economic picture for white families in this area is considerably brighter.

Some Washingtonians, of course, have reached into their pockets this year, even without the media bombardment that accompanied the 1973 crisis.

Last Spring, Ballou High School students raised $1,000 for Africare. In September, a group called Rafiki Productions donated proceeds from their annual fashion show to a home for disabled children in Zimbabwe. Last week, the Hunger action groups in American and Georgetown universities each collected about $800 from students who elected to forgo a meal in order to send the equivalent savings to Oxfam-American, Inc., a Boston-based relief group.

On November 14, about 250 members of the Shiloh Baptist Church gathered for a midnight service that was attended by activist Dick Gregory and Mayor Marion Barry -- who has declared November Hunger Awareness Month -- and collected about $1,000 for Africare.

The Rev. Ronald Austin, assistant pastor of Shiloh, organized the event for the fourth consecutive year.

"It's part of our Christian committment, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. I think that's what we're supposed to be about," said Austin, who organizes his church's participation in a free meal program called So Others Might Eat. Other local churches are spreading the message of world hunger in their Thanksgiving sermons.

In official Washington, the federal government has responded with about $50 million in emergency aid since last year, without which, said Lucas, "hundreds of thousands would be dead already."

But more than lack of awareness and economic downshifts are affecting the overall relief efforts. Recently, they have been clouded by charges of corruption during past relief campaigns (in 1974, grain reportedly was being exported from starving Ethiopia, even as relief supplies poured in) and by complex political battles having little to do with food.

In Uganda, the lack of a functioning central government has left the population without direction in organizing emergency relief, and bereft of protection against thieves. Elsewhere, land pirates have diverted aid from the West for sale on the black market. In Somalia, thousands have fled the turmoil of an intermittent 20-year war with Ethiopia over the disputed region called Ogaden.

"Imagine Wasington with no buildings, no Potomac River, and suddenly the city had 800,000 people," Lucas, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, said in describing a Somali refugee camp. "There are more people in the camps than there are in this city, and they are living on just what the trucks bring in -- when the trucks get there."

Channel 9 anchorwoman J.C. Hayward traveled through Somalia for three weeks in June to report on conditions in refugee camps there and remembers vividly what she encountered.

"I had done quite a bit of research before I went but, it was still quite shocking," she said. "If you've never come across a horizen to see a refugee camp it's a sight to behold. There's no water; the children use leftover utensils to dig in the dirt, to salvage whatever water is left."

Hayward blames any deficiencies in the public response to a lack of media coverage.

"After the show, the response was overwhelming," she said. "People were sending me checks -- people who in many cases couldn't afford to.What I'm really saying is: Afro-Americans are more aware than ever before, and when they become aware there is a tremendous response."

She insisted that apathy about the situation in Somalia must come from not knowing.

Lucas agreed, declaring: "I expect in the next calandar year for our donations to look like the Sahel fund-raising campaign, because it's just starting to be written about."

Lucas feels that blacks, especially, should be willing to respond.

"I think blacks should support Africa, first because it's the right thing to do, and second, because it's our roots and heritage," he said. "If we don't support our heritage, we can't expect anyone else to. And if we want to reach beyond names and dashikis and Afros, to the centerpiece of our heritage, we've got to help people in need."

The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that East Africa alone needs 1.5 million tons of food in the next 12 months. And even after that goal is reached, there will be other needs.

"If people are going to be kept alive, they've got to be kept alive for something," Lucas said. "Most of these people are women and children, nomads who need skills like farming or weaving if they're going to settle somewhere. It's not radically different from many of our people on welfare. It keeps you alive, but it doesn't give you much enthusiasm for living."