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Ethiopia-Born Businessman Runs U.S. Aid Program

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Ethiopia-Born Businessman Runs U.S. Aid Program

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Ethiopia-Born Businessman Runs U.S. Aid Program

Ethiopia-Born Businessman Runs U.S. Aid Program

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Daniel Yohannes, who left his home country of Ethiopia when he was 17 to make a new life in the United States, says he's happy to give back to his adopted country, by serving in the Obama administration. Yohannes runs a multibillion dollar aid program that started under the Bush administration to fight poverty and promote good governance.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Since taking office, President Obama and his administration have tried a fresh approach to diplomacy. They've taken measures to distance themselves from their predecessors. But there is one aid program left by the Bush administration that is continuing largely unchanged. The man tapped to run it is a private businessman born in Africa.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has his story.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Daniel Yohannes says he was an adventurous kid, leaving his home country of Ethiopia when he was 17 to study in the United States. Now he says he's happy to give back to his adopted country by serving in the Obama administration, running a multi-billion dollar aid program.

Mr. DANIEL YOHANNES (CEO, Millennium Challenge Corporation): I understand poverty probably better than most people because I've seen the demonizing nature of poverty. Also, I understand from my background that we have to work with countries that are committed for good governance, countries that are very transparent.

KELEMEN: And that's the goal of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which President Bush set up with the hope that it would have $5 billion a year to help fight poverty in countries that meet certain standards of good governance. It never came close to that level of spending.

The Obama administration's latest budget request is for $1.28 billion. Yohannes says he hopes to tap the U.S. private sector to help leverage the work the MCC is doing to help countries build roads, bridges, ports and schools.

Mr. YOHANNES: Many of those countries that we work with are really ripe for investment. So that's why we want to encourage American businesses to make sure that, you know, they participate in the economic development. It's a win-win for American businesses as well as for the countries themselves.

KELEMEN: These days, China has been investing heavily in many countries in Africa without the same strings attached. Still, Yohannes, just back from a trip to West Africa, believes countries are lining up to get the MCC vote of approval.

Mr. YOHANNES: So they might sell oil, you know, to the Chinese or somebody else. But if in fact you have a corrupt government, then you're not going to bring the prosperity that you need, right?

But these are countries that are committed for their own citizens. And in the long term, if they are going to be prosperous, then they're going to have to have good form of government. They have to have good social and economic policies. They have to be able to make investments in their citizens in terms of health and education.

KELEMEN: Daniel Yohannes is a self-made businessman who's spent three decades working in banking and finance, mainly in Colorado. He's been getting good marks from experts who follow U.S. foreign assistance programs, including Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development.

Ms. NANCY BIRDSALL (President, Center for Global Development): He strikes me first and foremost as an extremely intelligent, mission-driven entrepreneur. He wants to get the job done. He wants to generate good outcomes.

KELEMEN: Birdsall says the Obama administration is smart to sustain this Bush-era program. The advice she and others have been giving to Yohannes is to stick to the core mission, to focus on the poorest countries, not necessarily strategic ones.

Yohannes says he plans to be selective.

Mr. YOHANNES: They have about two billion people today that earn less than $2 a day. So we understand that we cannot be able even to begin to combat poverty in every level. But nevertheless, we have to work with those countries that are promising.

KELEMEN: Before he took over, the MCC had to terminate its program in Madagascar after a coup last year. And it has suspended programs in Honduras because of the political turmoil there.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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