President Bush said Monday the United States would speed up delivery of funding to poor countries after African leaders complained that one of his signature aid projects was rife with red tape.

In March 2002, Bush said he would begin distributing foreign aid with the Millennium Challenge Account (search). Countries would be eligible for the proposed $5 billion in aid only if they were committed to democratic, economic and human rights reforms.

His plan was slow to get off the ground, and Congress has not been willing to give him the funding that he wants. He's received $2.5 billion over the last two years — $1.3 billion less than he's requested — and compacts have been approved for just four countries.

When Bush met with presidents of five African nations on Monday, they said that bureaucracy and fine print make it nearly impossible to access the aid.

"I assured the leaders we will work harder and faster to certify countries for the MCA, so that MCA countries, and the people in the MCA countries, can see the benefit of this really important piece of legislation and funding," Bush said.

Bush invited the presidents of Botswana, Ghana, Mozambique, Namibia and Niger to the White House because all five won democratic elections last year. He said they are an example to neighboring nations and said debt relief and liberalized trade can help spread freedom on the troubled continent.

"All of us share a fundamental commitment to advancing democracy and opportunity on the continent of Africa (search)," he said, standing with the five leaders after their private meeting in the Oval Office. "And all of us believe that one of the most effective ways to advance democracy and deliver hope to the people of Africa is through mutually beneficial trade."

The president touted a large jump in trade with Africa last year that he said is due to a pact he signed into law that offers duty-free treatment on some goods and other trade benefits. The pact also requires participating countries to show they are making progress toward a market-based economy, the rule of law, free trade, the protection of workers' rights and policies that will reduce poverty.

He also said the United States is helping Africans by working with others in the Group of Eight (search) major industrialized nations to eliminate more than $40 billion of debt owed by 18 of the world's poorest nations, including 14 in Africa.

The United States is the largest single provider of economic aid to Africa, but critics contend it is not doing enough because it has given a lower percentage of its gross domestic product in aid than other major industrialized countries.

Botswana President Festus Mogae said the leaders of Niger and Ghana told Bush about the problems they faced after the State Department announced in February 2004 that they were among 63 countries that met preliminary criteria for the account. Three months later, 16 countries were chosen. Niger was not, but Ghana and Mozambique were, although neither country has yet to get any funding.

"We complained bitterly about bureaucracy on that side," Mogae said. He said Bush told them he regretted the problems and told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to improve the system.

"He turned to her and said, 'She is going to take care of it,"' Mogae said.

Mogae said his country never qualified because its per capita income exceeded the $1,425 threshold for eligible countries. "We're struck out because it says that we are not poor enough," he said. "And yet we are poor."

Paul Applegarth, chief executive officer of Millennium Challenge Corp., said it was focusing on help for the very poorest nations. He said Niger didn't do well in the rankings because it hasn't done enough to reduce poverty compared to other nations. He said Ghana got off to a slow start but seems to be making better progress in recent months to get a compact soon, as is Mozambique.

"We're going to help them, and if they are complaining about things going too slow, they should look in the mirror," he said.

Mogae said the African leaders acknowledged they share some blame for slowing the aid. "Sometimes we, ourselves, are not as prompt and as diligent in following up some of these things as we should be," he said.

Rice was attending a ceremony Monday for the second compact signed under the Millennium Challenge Account program. Under the agreement, the United States is to send $215 million to Honduras over the next five years.

Madagascar signed a four-year compact for nearly $110 million in March. Also on Monday, the Millennium Challenge Corp. board of directors approved two more five-year compacts — $110 million for Cape Verde and $175 million for Nicaragua. The compacts cannot be signed until after a 15-day congressional notification period.