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Obama's man on global development

From Edvige Jean-Francois, CNN
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An Ethiopian's remarkable rise
  • Daniel Yohannes is chief executive officer of the Millennium Challenge Corporation
  • The U.S. agency aims to reduce poverty through economic growth
  • The Ethiopian native says the MCC aids countries that are committed to good governance

Every week CNN International's African Voices highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. This week we profile Ethiopian native Daniel Yohannes, head of the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

Washington (CNN) -- Daniel Yohannes left his native country of Ethiopia for the United States in 1970 with just $150 in his pocket.

Four decades later, he's worked his way up from low-level clerk to successful bank executive to the head of a multi-billion dollar U.S. aid program.

For a year now, Yohannes has headed the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a U.S. government agency that gives grants to select countries to aid in their development.

Born in Addis Ababa, the self-made businessman who came to the United States in search of a better life says his background helps inform his work at the MCC.

Fight against global poverty
Relationship with Obama
Gallery: Daniel Yohannes

"One thing you learn in growing up in Ethiopia and Africa at the beginning is poverty is dehumanizing," said Yohannes.

The MCC's specific mission is to reduce poverty through long-term economic growth. To achieve that goal, the MCC is run "just like a business."

It makes sure the countries that are on the receiving end of financial aid are creating a sustainable environment for growth, Yohannes says.

Tapped to lead the agency by U.S. President Barack Obama, Yohannes says the role has given him an opportunity to give back to his adopted homeland.

"This country has been very good to me, so I wanted to give back to the country that has given me so much," he said.

Yohannes left Ethiopia when he was just a teenager. "I came here to this country with absolutely nothing," he recalled.

"I was in the 11th grade and I only had about $150 in my pocket, sufficient for about two months rent. I had no choice but to get a job -- I started as a stock clerk and I think in those days the minimum hourly rate was about $1.75."

After completing his studies in economics and finance, he went on to forge a long and successful career in the banking industry, before assuming his role at the MCC last year.

One thing you learn in growing up in Ethiopia and Africa at the beginning is poverty is dehumanizing.
--Daniel Yohannes, CEO of MCC

What gets him excited about working for the MCC is "the fact that we have many opportunities to help those countries become self-sufficient and help themselves get out of poverty."

According to Yohannes, only nations that show commitment to good governance, encourage economic freedom and invest in their own people are eligible to receive financial assistance.

"We have to be extremely selective in who we work with -- I mean we cannot work with every single country, we have to help those who want to help themselves," Yohannes said.

So far this year, the MCC says it's agreed to give nearly a billion dollars in aid to five countries. It supports development projects in sectors such as infrastructure, health, education and finance development.

According to Yohannes, there are several success stories stemming from the agency's work.

The island country of Cape Verde, located off the coast of West Africa, has improved its investment opportunities as well as citizens' access to schools and clinics after using MCC's funds to expand its infrastructure, he noted.

Ghana is another success story, he says. The MCC trained thousands of farmers to use modern technology and provided them with marketing skills and access to credit.

"Ghanaians farmers are now producing pineapple from the result of our training," said Yohannes.

A number of American companies have also begun sourcing Ghanaians pineapples to the outside market, whereas before much produce was lost because there simply wasn't access to markets.

A proud American now, Yohannes said he is "obligated and committed" to the country that has helped him to achieve his goals in life.

"After 40 years, this becomes home -- your values, your friends, your outlook, how you think," he said. "You really become an American."