Sajid Javid is Financial Secretary to the Treasury and MP for Bromsgrove

A cry, unlike anything I had heard before, rang out as we stepped into the intensive care ward of Sierra Leone’s only children’s hospital.  It came from a woman in the corner of the room, and I understood what it meant.  Her frail little toddler, lying on the bed beside her, had just died.

My own daughter, aged 14, was travelling with me and asked what had happened.  My fatherly reaction was to protect her.  “He’s not very well”, I said.  “Has he died?” she asked.  “No” I replied.  But just then, a nurse came over to speak to the matron who was showing us around.  In a flat managerial tone she said the child had died.

Here, such death was commonplace.  The child I had assumed was no more than a year old was actually a child of four.

Sadly, this boy was just one of the two million children who die every year due to complications from malnutrition; his body could not fight the malaria and pneumonia that attacked his immune system.  One of the most dangerous aspects of malnutrition is the way it debilitates the immune system and turns common illnesses into killers.

I’m proud the UK is attempting to prevent these deaths, by leading the international effort to end stunting – when the development of the brain and body are held back because of malnutrition – in children under two.   In fact, we are the first G8 country to reach the historic commitment of spending 0.7 per cent of our national income on overseas aid.  In June we committed to tripling our nutrition spend.

I went to Sierra Leone earlier this year, on a trip organised by UNICEF UK, in order to see our commitments in action.  Sierra Leone suffered a ten-year civil war which finally came to an end in 2002.  The conflict killed 50,000 men, women and children, displaced a further 2.5 million and devastated the country’s infrastructure.  Rather than the outdated idea of aid as a handout, I wanted to witness aid as an investment – to break the vicious circles of poverty, malnutrition and disease.

I found one such project in a village in near Makeni, Sierra Leone’s third largest town.  The sanitation project involved latrines in traditional bamboo huts, maintained by the villagers who were shown how to use ash for soap.  The village chief explained that since the latrines were built they had noticed a dramatic fall in the number of cholera-related illnesses. Good hygiene and sanitation will be at the forefront of tackling malnutrition in years to come.

In the next village I visited there was a clear lack of infrastructure.  With little public transport or maintained roads, mothers are forced to walk an unimaginable 10 miles to get to a UNICEF out-patient clinic for children with malnutrition.  But the long journey is worth it.  After their children are weighed and measured, they’re sent home with sachets of Plumpy’Nut, a highly nutritious peanut paste that counters malnutrition.

These children were only able to receive treatment for this life-threatening but treatable illness because a coalition of organisations has championed free health-care for pregnant women and under-fives.  The UK Government is a substantial donor to projects like these and UNICEF coordinates the distribution of all the medicines needed for the country.  In a country where one in four children dies before their fifth birthday, it was all too clear these children rely on our continued support.

But we want to halt malnutrition and disease before medical intervention is needed.  One of the best ways to do this is to educate women on the importance of breast feeding and good nutritional feeding practises.

In some West African cultures, marital relations do not resume while a mother is still breastfeeding.  As a result, some mothers may stop breastfeeding early, meaning their babies miss out on essential nourishment and anti-bodies.  While in Bangladesh 90 per cent of children are still being breastfed by the age of two, only 45% are in Sierra Leone.  Accordingly Bangladesh ranks 60th for infant mortality, while Sierra Leone ranks first in the world.

UNICEF teaches expectant mothers and fathers the importance of breast feeding.  By spending money on this education, and stepping in before a child is born, babies get a better start in life and fewer children will need emergency nutrition like sachets of Plumpy’Nut.

As we spend time with our children this Christmas, it’s reassuring to know that our country is doing its bit for the world’s children.