During a successful career as a diplomat, head of MI6 and permanent British representative at the UN, Sir John Sawers travelled the world. Today, as a long-standing ambassador for Action Through Enterprise Ghana, he knows good international development when he sees it. . . 


With all your international experience and insight, why do you think Action Through Enterprise is doing something special? 

What I’m struck by is what it achieves in the poorest part of Ghana on a very modest budget, less than £250,000 a year. That is an astonishingly low sum for an organisation that creates 50 jobs itself, from school cooks to community support staff. Those of us who live in comfortable Western countries, if someone was spending £20,000 a month, they wouldn’t get very far, they wouldn’t be able to achieve very much. But in Lawra, ATE has lifted up an entire community of over 50,000 people.


Sir John speaking at our 10th Anniversary event

Can a small charity really have much impact?

It’s enabled over two and half thousand children to go to school who otherwise might be working in the fields. And just the act of going to school gives opportunities to a child for further development.

It’s backed over 120 small businesses and dry season farmers with funding and training –  developing skills, bringing income into the community,  giving them the chance to have something they can be proud of, something for them and their families.

And it’s supported more than 400 disabled children and their families to challenge stigma  – and unfortunately, in some very poor communities, disability is a stigma  –– and helped them have a more normal life, perhaps going to school or working, being respected members of the community.

Those three things together ­– education, enterprise and support for the least well-off –combine to benefit the whole community, enabling it to grow, step by step, in a very balanced way.


You’ve supported Action Through Enterprise for many years – what got you involved?

I came across Action Through Enterprise at a launch for the charity in the village of Ramsbury in Wiltshire. The driving force behind it, Sarah Gardner, had come back from a rather mixed experience as a VSO volunteer in Lawra, determined to do something about it. And frankly, the village of Ramsbury, we took our hat off to her. She was just so dynamic and so driven.

Of course, the danger is that you have these well-meaning charitable organisations in a far-off country like Britain providing something to a small rural area in Africa. What Sarah and the team have developed is a real community approach.

Why is the community approach so important?

Because Action Through Enterprise’s work has generated local support, it has real commitment from all the small villages around Lawra. Delivery of the projects is done by people from Lawra in the various village hubs – and nothing is done to the community, the community does things itself, with the support of ATE.

One of the charity’s great successes is its leadership model. Yes, it was started from Britain, but it’s led from Ghana. Role model is a very important term here, and for someone like Gabriel Maanibe (Country Director) – who’s studied international development abroad and then come back to the village where he was brought up, to the community which nurtured him –  for him to see it develop and be able to say how it was when he was, say, a ten year old and struggling to go to school, and how things have changed. That’s an inspiration for young people, not only to acquire the skills to be successful in life, but also to bring them back to the community. It’s a really important part of the development process.


After its success in Lawra, what next for Action Through Enterprise?

I’ve been a supporter for over ten years and I’ve seen ATE develop its own thinking, its own learning, its hub model. ATE has come through Covid stronger, stable and, more to the point, ready to grow. Ready to take the lessons of the first ten years into other areas. Our plan is to double our funding, or more, over the coming years, so we can repeat what’s done in Lawra in the neighbouring district of Nandom, and then into a third district. More money enables us to replicate that success in other areas and that what we plan to do.

And it’s interesting, because Nandom has slightly different needs to Lawra, and there’s not one size fits all recipe to deliver, they’ll be different requirements, different priorities, a slightly different balance of effort in Nandom. That ability to evolve and to learn new ways of doing things, that’s really important too.

I think Action Through Enterprise has got a fantastic future ahead. There’s an opportunity, not just in Northern Ghana but across the poorest parts of Africa, for this model to create more successful communities and give more opportunities to hundreds of thousands of people who would otherwise be denied them. That’s a fantastically exciting prospect.