American Foreign Policy in Sub-Saharan Africa: Where to from here?

Policy in the United States of America towards Sub-Saharan Africa has been a relatively stable issue over the course of the past few presidential administrations. In stark contrast to the debates that exist around American foreign policy in many other regions, American policy towards Africa has largely enjoyed bipartisan support from both Republicans and Democrats since the end of the Cold-War. This policy has been focussed on three main areas, which are likely to remain at the core of America’s relations with Sub-Saharan Africa; trade, foreign aid and security cooperation. Rafael Friedman explores what impact, if any, the shock election of Donald Trump will have on these.



Following Donald Trump’s surprise election in late 2016, the relative stability of American foreign policy on the continent has been called into question. Apart from Trump’s general unpredictability and lack of clarity on policy issues, all three main areas of co-operation are areas where Trump has publicly broken with American policy orthodoxy. This raises questions around what impact Trump will have on the existing ties between America and Sub-Saharan Africa and what this will mean for the region.

Trump has said relatively little about Sub-Saharan Africa thus far and it is likely the region will receive sparse attention in the new American administration. The result of this would be that policy on Africa would fall to career diplomats, who are unlikely to make any substantive changes. However, that is not necessarily the case in all areas and the impact of more general policy shifts under Trump may have an impact on the continent.


American policy on trade in Africa has developed based on the idea that trade into Africa would promote economic growth and thus foster stability and the growth of democracy. This led to the establishment of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) in 2000. AGOA aimed to enhance Sub-Saharan African countries’ access to the American market by granting them tariff free access while basing eligibility on whether countries were working to improve labour and human rights standards and the rule of law. The Act now applies to over 40 countries and is responsible for almost all trade between America and the region. It is estimated to have created 120 000 jobs in Sub-Saharan Africa and has more than doubled trade between the region and America.

With a hallmark of Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign being his opposition to trade deals that he felt had unfairly impacted the American economy, concerns have been raised around what this will mean for AGOA. Trump has vowed to renegotiate America’s trade deals and has specifically targeted those that he deems to prejudice American business interests. This has led to particular scrutiny on multilateral trade deals, like AGOA, with Trump preferring bilateral deals. In addition, AGOA created a trade deficit for America that reached $8bn in 2016. Meaning it could find itself as a target for the new administration.

However, it is unlikely that Trump will aim to entirely repeal AGOA or make any substantive changes to the existing trading relations. In 2015 AGOA was extended until 2025 with bipartisan support in both the US Congress and the Senate. It also earned praise in the 2016 Republican Party Platform and it is therefore difficult to see Trump having the support to repeal the law in Congress, which he would need to do if he wanted to make any substantive changes before 2025. Additionally, imports from Sub-Saharan Africa are a very small part of America’s total imports (less than one percent in 2014) and thus it is unlikely to be a particular priority for the Trump Administration. What does remain to be seen is the impact that the Trump administration will have in growing and deepening trade with the region, which is likely to be an area where very little progress is made due to his current, protectionist stance.

Humanitarian Aid and Development Assistance (aid):

The second key area of relations between America and Sub-Saharan Africa is humanitarian aid and development assistance, which are generally classed under the category of foreign aid. The region receives a greater proportion of US humanitarian aid than any other and many countries rely heavily on donor money, with it forming a substantial part of many nations’ GDP. This amount has grown substantially over the last two decades with a particular focus on health, through programmes such as the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (Pepfar) and the Global Health Initiative, under George W. Bush and public-private infrastructure partnerships under Barack Obama. The central one being the Power Africa initiative, which aimed to double electricity access in Sub-Saharan Africa. Obama had also aimed to broaden the effectiveness of aid in the region by reducing the amount of aid money that went to for-profit companies in the aid industry by increasing the amount that goes directly to recipient governments.

This engagement with Africa also formed part of security strategies in both the Obama and Bush administrations. Both presidents recognised the national security advantage that an effective aid regime would have. Both saw continued development on the continent as well as the growth of democratic governance as a bulwark against the advance of violence and extremism and integrated aid policy into their respective national security strategies.

However, the Trump administration has recently announces that they are looking to drastically cut the budgets of a number of federal agencies, with a particular focus on the State Department. The department responsible for the foreign aid budget. In order to pursue $54bn worth of defence budget increases, while continuing plans to cut taxes. Trump had been outspoken about cutting parts of the aid budget during his presidential campaign and specifically alleged that “every penny” of the $7bn allocated to the Power Africa initiative would be stolen. Additionally, a discussion document recently distributed around the State Department by the Trump Administration directly questioned whether Sub-Saharan African aid money could not better be spent domestically and whether Pepfar had become an entitlement programme.

The possibility of foreign aid budget cuts has led to push back from senior military leaders who are concerned that it will worsen America’s security outlook. A letter sent to the Trump Administration by 120 admirals and generals, including former CIA director David Petraeus, argued that “elevating US diplomacy” is key to American security and that aid and a fully operational State Department are crucial to the military’s ability to maintain America’s security. The letter additionally makes the point that Trump’s Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, had previously been vocal about the need to maintain strong diplomatic capabilities alongside America’s substantial military ones. Mattis had previously been quoted as saying that the “International Affairs budget must keep pace with growing global threats and opportunities”. He supported this by saying that in the long run it was cheaper to spend extra money on international affairs as it made it less likely that the money would have to be spent on a military solution further down the line.

The question therefore remains about what impact foreign aid cuts will have on Sub-Saharan Africa specifically. With more being clear when the Trump’s first full budget is released in May. It remains to be seen how direct the impact on funding will be for the foreign aid budget, but the office of Management and Budget has already committed to State Department cuts estimated at around 28%. With African countries as such large recipients, there will certainly be some effect. However, the extent is likely to be determined by the security establishment on the basis of national interest, rather than by considerations of America’s role in the world. As the debate around foreign aid in America is often deeply inaccurate, with the average amount Americans believe their government spends on it being 26% of GDP when the real figure is 0,17%, there is a generally hostile feeling towards it. This is particularly pronounced amongst Trump’s base of supporters. However, with a more positive opinion of it existing amongst the military establishment that surrounds Trump, it is possible that he will be convinced to take a softer stance or to focus the majority of the cuts away from Sub-Saharan Africa. In order to maintain stability and to combat the growth of Chinese influence in the region.


Sub-Saharan Africa has not been at a major focal point of Donald Trump’s administration and is unlikely to become one. It’s therefore likely that the vast majority of America’s policy towards the region will continue to be set by career diplomats and will  continue as they did before his shock election late last year. There are however likely to be run-off effects from general policy decisions that Trump will make that will have an impact. This is likely to be the case with foreign aid, unless the American military establishment is able to convince the new President otherwise. This may lead to major cuts in the foreign aid budget that will likely harm a number of countries in the region. However, despite Trump’s virulent protectionist views, it is unlikely he will attempt to repeal AGOA. Although it is unlikely that there will be any deepening of America’s trade relations with Sub-Saharan Africa.


Rafael Friedman



8. (Guardian 2)