President Bush met yesterday with the leaders of five African nations and promised to work to speed future aid to the continent through an underutilized program that rewards poor nations that pursue political and economic reforms with substantial increases in development help.

Flanked by the five African presidents during remarks at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Bush said that "we will work harder and faster to certify countries" for the Millennium Challenge Account, a program announced in 2002 that was supposed to increase U.S. foreign aid by as much as $5 billion by 2006. So far, the program has committed a fraction of that amount -- about $325 million -- largely because of an unwieldy process for verifying that applicant nations meet the program's criteria. Madagascar is the only African country receiving aid under the program.

Bush also touted the United States' small, but fast-growing volume of trade with Africa, saying African exports to the United States increased 88 percent last year over 2003. Bush credited the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which lowered trade barriers between the United States and 37 African nations, for the increase.

"You see, AGOA is promoting democratic reform in Africa by providing incentives for these nations to extend freedom and opportunity to all of their citizens," Bush said.

Bush hosted the presidents of Mozambique, Botswana, Ghana, Namibia and Niger for a session that the White House said was aimed at spotlighting peaceful elections in those countries over the past year. It also came at a time when U.S. assistance to Africa is being thrust to the top of his agenda.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is leading an effort to persuade wealthy nations, including the United States, to double their contributions to African development. Bush rejected Blair's overture during the British leader's visit to the White House last week, and instead announced plans to release $674 million in humanitarian aid for Africa already appropriated by Congress.

On Saturday, the United States joined in a decision by the Group of Eight major industrial nations to forgive more than $40 billion in debt owed to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other international lenders by 18 nations, most of them in Africa. Also, aid to Africa is poised to be a major topic when the G-8 nations meet in Scotland early next month.

Bush has come a long way in his focus on Africa from his 2000 presidential campaign. Asked about humanitarian intervention in Africa during a presidential debate, he said "there's got to be priorities," before going on to list his top four foreign policy concerns that did not include Africa.

Administration officials have said that as president, Bush has tripled aid to Africa. The increased U.S. aid has helped finance treatment for more than 200,000 Africans with HIV, which is part of the administration's five-year goal of providing treatment to 2 million people.

Susan E. Rice, a Brookings Institution scholar and former assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Clinton administration, took issue with assertions that Bush has increased aid to Africa three-fold, arguing that the increase actually has been 67 percent. Still, she applauded the increase as a pleasant surprise.

"I wish they were doing more," Rice said. "The reasons for helping these countries grow and develop go far beyond the pressing humanitarian concerns. We have a security interest there. All manner of transnational threats, from disease to terrorism, can prosper in countries" that remain undeveloped.

The five nations represented at the White House continue to struggle with huge challenges, even as they have made democratic progress.

Botswana's diamond-fueled economy is one of Africa's best, but the nation also has the world's highest incidence of AIDS, according to CountryWatch Inc., a Houston-based information service. Niger is one of the world's poorest nations, and reports of slavery are rife there, but its government is widely viewed as relatively free of corruption. Ghana has a diverse economy that includes agriculture, tourism, auto assembly and textile plants, but its population is largely impoverished. Namibia has large gas reserves, diamonds and uranium, but also a severe AIDS problem. Mozambique, meanwhile, enjoys a vast, unspoiled coastline but continues to be one of the world's least developed nations.

"We believe Africa is a continent full of promise and talent and opportunity," Bush said, "and the United States will do our part to help the people of Africa realize the brighter future they deserve."

President Bush makes a statement on aid to Africa with, from left, President Armando Guebuza of Mozambique, President John Agyekum Kufuor of Ghana, President Festus Mogae of Botswana, President Mamadou Tandja of Niger and President Hifikepunye Pohamba of Namibia at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.