The child, among the thousands, maybe millions, malnourished in East Africa, looks up from feeding with piercing eyes.
Is the world looking back?
Or looking elsewhere?
Mostly elsewhere, aid workers and other experts say. Not out of indifference, but because of fatigue or concurrent crises diverting the global gaze.
But the world must not long look away. Instead, it must act quickly and cohesively to avoid a profound human catastrophe as hunger — perhaps, officially, a rare declaration of famine — stalks Somalia and neighboring nations in the Horn of Africa.
"I have been shocked to my core these past few days by the level of pain and suffering we see so many Somalis enduring," U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths said at a September news conference in Mogadishu.
"Famine is at the door, and today we are receiving a final warning," said Griffiths, who added: "The situation and trends resemble those seen in 2010-2011, in that crisis. Except now they are worse. The unprecedented failure of four consecutive rainy seasons, decades of conflict, mass displacement, severe economic issues are pushing many people to the brink of famine. And these conditions are likely to last through to at least March 2023."
Those conditions are grim on the ground in places like Dollow, from which UNICEF representative James Elder described hundreds of makeshift tents "across a really burnt landscape," with some Somalis saying they'd walked for 10-25 days. "Most people are in a pretty desperate state because they've arrived with what they can carry."
Tragically, Elder reported, what they're carrying doesn't always include their children, since many are buried along the way.
"We are in nearly unprecedented circumstances compared to anything in living memory," said Daniel Maxwell, a Tufts University professor of food security. This includes what Maxwell calls "terms of trade" — the amount of a basic staple like sorghum or one-day's labor that can be traded for food. The ratio is at or near the lows of the 2011 famine or a more recent crisis in 2017.
Exacerbating the food insecurity is Somalia's overall insecurity as the government battles the violent nihilism of the Islamic extremist group al-Shabab. What's more, conflict outside the country and even the continent — specifically, Russia's invasion of Ukraine — is further disrupting an already fragile food supply, leading to suffering beyond that battlefield.
While drought is by definition a natural disaster, the parched land and other factors contributing to the crisis are in part man-made (or in the case of Russian President Vladimir Putin, one-man-made).
"The global food crisis on the back of the war in Ukraine also means that [the price of] things like our wonder food, our therapeutic food [consumed by the child in the photograph], has increased double-digit percentage as well, which means UNICEF's own costs are up by millions of dollars," said Elder, "So, children here are definitely suffering for the invasion of Ukraine that they probably don't know is going on."
There is "insecurity, no doubt, and yes, everything is worsened by the global food shortages," said Elder. "But the greatest impact here is a climate crisis, pushing hundreds of thousands to the brink. We are headed toward a climate-change induced famine."
If so, it won't be the last climate-change calamity in the Horn of Africa or elsewhere, like in Pakistan, which suffered devastating floods in recent weeks.
Countries contending with disasters naturally turn to international institutions for help. But the ability to respond is well behind the requests, according to data from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Recent years have shown an ever-growing global appeal met with a lower-percentage response. So far in 2022, for instance, only 37% of needs have been able to be met.
Getting governments to rally responses is difficult at any time and especially challenging in a geopolitically fractured world buffeted by crises. It will require resolve from world leaders as well as everyday citizens.
But the relatively reduced attention to the Horn of Africa crisis makes this difficult. Citing Ukraine and other emergencies, Maxwell said that competition for media interest extends to competition for humanitarian resources.
"There's just a lot of other things happening in the world right now," Maxwell said. Somalia "has been kind of flying under the radar," although Somalia, he said, has actually gotten a lot more attention than hunger in war-torn Ethiopia, or portions of Kenya.
Concurrent, enduring hunger in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Yemen and Syria mean that "even well-intentioned people who try to stay on top of foreign affairs and global crises feel a bit overwhelmed," said Steve Taravella, a senior spokesperson for the World Food Program (WFP), which acts as the U.N.'s hunger first responders. "It's a challenge to know where to put their attention and what the real priority is."
The U.S. government has rightly put its attention, priority — and, Taravella said, record funding of more than $5 billion — on food assistance. But more, from more governments, is and will be needed, as evidenced by WFP's map of 19 "Hunger Hotspots" that stretch from Mauritania to Madagascar in Africa and include Mideast and Southwest Asian nations and even two in this hemisphere — Guatemala and Honduras.
Maxwell, who wrote a book on the 2011 famine, added that while "there hasn't been anything like the degree of attention in world media" there was then, "there is a great deal of mobilization within Somali communities to respond to this, both in the diaspora, as would be the case in Minneapolis, but also domestically within Somalia or the broader Islamic community in the Horn of Africa."
While those most directly affected may be mobilized, global galvanization is not yet commensurate to 2011, and far from 1985, when famine in Ethiopia prompted cross-continent concerts that raised public awareness and government alacrity. Today, however, the musician and movement moving the news narrative isn't Bob Geldof and Live Aid, but the dead aim Kanye West (now just Ye) has taken at America's divisions with his anti-George Floyd and anti-Semitic antics, as well as his announced purchase of Parler, one of several right-wing Twitter knockoffs.
But this different era doesn't mean that citizens can't, or won't, act. "Americans are generally good at being supporting communities" whether they're local or global, said Elder, an Australian observing U.S. society. "There is just a sense of empathy or being aware of what others are enduring through no fault of their own."
It's "obviously very dangerous in these things to paint such a grim picture that people throw their hands up," continued Elder. "But we know that it's only individual action, and then individual action on top of each other that ultimately have a collective impact, as it has time and time again."
In other words, returning the gaze of the malnourished child and seeing what's at stake for the Horn of Africa, and for humanity everywhere.