The United States and Ghana Tuesday signed a $547 million aid accord under the Bush administration's Millennium Challenge program. Ghanaian President John Kufour says it will help vault his country to middle-income status among developing nations by 2015.

The grant is by far the biggest to date under the Millennium Challenge program, the signature aid initiative of the Bush administration which ties funding to good governance and anti-corruption commitments by recipient states.

The $547 million package is designed to boost agriculture, the backbone of Ghana's economy, by improving farm productivity and transportation links to speed Ghanaian products to regional and world markets.

It will be focused on the country's northern region and central Afram Basin areas, where poverty among the rural population is as high as 90 percent.

The deal was signed at a State Department ceremony led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Ghanaian President John Kufuor, who said his government's market-oriented policies have produced a steady climb in economic growth:

"Marked progress is being made on this trajectory, with the rate of growth moving from 3.7 percent in the year 2001 to 4.2 percent in 2002, 4.8 percent in 2003, 5.2 percent in 2004, 5.8 percent in 2005, and now over six percent [applause]," said Mr. Kufour.

Mr. Kufuor said sustained eight percent annual economic growth for Ghana is a realistic possibility, which would boost the country's current per-capita income of about $600, to $1,000 by 2015, the definition of a middle income developing state.

A former British colony, Ghana in 1957 became the first sub-Saharan country in colonial Africa to gain independence. But its political life was marred in succeeding decades by a series of coups.

Political stability and multi-party politics took hold in the 1990's, and Secretary Rice, in her comments at the ceremony, paid tribute to the international role of President Kufuor, who was elected to office in 2000:

"I've had the opportunity to work with President Kufuor over the last several years on a host of issues, including issues of regional conflict and development," said Ms. Rice.  "Mr. President, you are one of the best examples of a new Africa in which responsibility counts."

The Millennium Challenge (MCC) program was launched two years ago with the aim of assisting impoverished nations that commit to democratization, economic freedom and growth.

The program got off to a slow start with members of Congress criticizing its cumbersome grant application process.

But after a personnel shakeup last year, the program administered by a government-organized corporation has gained momentum, and the corporation has now signed aid agreements totaling more than $2 billion.

Ghana is the ninth recipient of an MCC grant, following Madagascar, Honduras, Cape Verde, Nicaragua, Georgia, Benin, Vanuatu and Armenia.