Last April I interviewed Angelo D'Agostino, an old friend who is a psychiatrist and a Jesuit priest. He had recently returned from East Africa, where he had been caring for refugees displaced by war and famine. In his downtown Washington office, the psychiatrist spoke of East Africa's famine, which now, eight months later, is the major international news event of the year.

It should have been news then, too, but I, like many others, couldn't focus. East African death and hunger was another of the global hard-luck stories that Americans know how to switch off, the way journalists train themselves to remain detached from emotionally draining stories -- the better to be objective about the next one. I had the interview with D'Agostino transcribed, but then put it aside. I went back to it the other day, and then spoke again to my friend. I and the rest of us are focused now.

I asked the priest-psychiatrist what he was seeing behind the page-one photographs of Ethiopians dying of hunger. D'Agostino told of the lack of roads, trucks, water systems, tools and other necessities that are the infrastructure needed to keep people fed. "How much wheat did you grow last year?" he asked rhetorically. "None, but the bread got to your table -- through the infrastructure. In East Africa, when there is only a small reversal like bad weather, the people are at a loss to cope with it. They live only on what they produce themselves, and when that gives out, it all goes."

D'Agostino has a fix on the conditions in threatened countries such as Ethiopia, Sudan, Zaire, Somalia, Uganda and Kenya because he was a relief worker there from 1981 to the end of 1983. A medical doctor who first practiced surgery and then went into psychiatry, the middle-aged Jesuit was sent by his order to coordinate its relief programs in the region.

He was no celebrity on a famine- watching lark. He contracted malaria twice. He had intestinal parasites and treated himself with an amoebacide de-wormer. "It was not easy in the bush," he recalls. "Trying to accomplish anything was sometimes impossible. In Juba, Sudan, for example, there are no telephones. There is no telex. The road to Khartoum -- the capital, 1,000 miles away -- just doesn't exist nine months a year. It's under water or sand. If you go, you just don't know when you are going to come back."

Because he Land-Rovered widely and could make immediate contact with seasoned relief workers, D'Agostino came to understand that the current hunger crisis is the result of earlier breakdowns. "In Ethiopia, we should not blame ourselves," he says. "The Russians have been there for 10 years, so they have the responsibility. They have been militarizing the country and have paid no attention to hunger and the economy. Our response has been more than generous. We can bring the food, but after that we have no control."

Ethiopia isn't the only government that puts its arms ahead of agriculture. The conditions of starvation now rampant in East Africa were created long in the past. They were worsened by decisions made in the 1970s. In 1977, according to the "World Military and Social Expenditures" report of Ruth Leger Sivard, Sudan's military outlay was $228 million; for health $54 million. It had 25 times more soldiers than doctors. In Chad, another famine country, which imports 100 percent of its grain as aid, $24 million went to the military, only $4 million for health. It had 50 times more soldiers than doctors.

The pattern is the same throughout Africa. Governments are armed to destroy everything but poverty. The poor are set to killing other poor. Americans -- through individual and group donations -- have responded with characteristic generosity to the famines, but that doesn't change the political structure.

In 1981, D'Agostino wrote a letter to me from Zaire and said that "the refugees have no food, no shelter, no clothes, no medicine -- but their greatest loss is of hope." I asked him last April if that had changed. Yes, he said. He visited remote villages rarely enght food, clothing, solar panels "and all kinds of things. Just being there showed them someone cared enough to come. I was exposing myself to the same kind of dangers they were in."

Before food disappeared in Africa, other things vanished: humane political systems, sound agricultural and conservation policies. All that's left now is personal caring, the kind that Angelo D'Agostino gave. That won't keep all the starving from dying, only some from dying alone.