Sub-Saharan Africa: Key Issues and US Engagement

Congressional Research Service (CRS)
Congressional Research Service (CRS)
Publication Year:
May 15, 2020
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

This report analyzes existing U.S. policies and programs in sub-Saharan Africa  from a budgetary and impact-based frameworks. The report highlights how persistent issues for Congress such as the appropriation of funding for U.S. foreign aid programs, and accompanying oversight of such actions must be properly understood before engaging in any humanitarian action. 


This report provides an introduction to select issues related to sub-Saharan Africa (henceforth, “Africa,” unless otherwise noted) and U.S. policy toward the region. It includes general information concerning Africa’s economic and development challenges, governance and human rights trends on the continent, and key issues related to peace and security. It also provides an overview of U.S. engagement in Africa and current U.S. policy approaches toward the region.

This report is intended to serve as a primer to help inform deliberations on key enduring issues for Congress, which include the authorization and appropriation of funding for U.S. foreign aid programs and U.S. military activities in the region and oversight of U.S. programs and policies. Other CRS products address in greater depth many of the topics considered in this report; several are cited in footnotes.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Key Issues and U.S. Engagement:

Congress may review existing U.S. policies and programs in sub-Saharan Africa (henceforth, “Africa”) as it establishes its budgetary and policy priorities and responds to developments in the region. Key enduring issues for Congress include the authorization and appropriation of funding for U.S. foreign aid programs and U.S. military activities in the region, and oversight of U.S. programs and policies.

Economic and Development Issues. Much of Africa experienced rapid economic growth starting in the early 2000s, reducing poverty and expanding the middle class in some countries. Since 2014, however, growth has slowed in many countries—and almost all continue to face high poverty rates and longstanding development challenges such as food insecurity and malnutrition, ineffective health and education institutions, and infrastructure deficiencies. Other factors hindering socioeconomic development in Africa include low domestic buying power, a shortage of skilled labor, limited access to capital and other inputs, poor governance, and political instability and insecurity.

Governance, Democracy, and Human Rights. Since the early 1990s, nearly all African countries have transitioned from military or single-party rule to at least nominally multiparty political systems in which elections are held regularly. Nonetheless, the development of accountable, functional democratic institutions remains limited in many countries. Corruption and mismanagement are pervasive across much of the region, and state services are limited. Authoritarian governments and armed belligerents in Africa commit serious human rights violations.

Peace and Security. Civil wars and crises have broken out in multiple African countries since 2010, reversing the previous decade’s trend of stabilization. Newer crises have unfolded in the Lake Chad Basin, the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Burundi, and South Sudan, while long-running conflicts continue to affect the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sudan, and Somalia. Porous borders, weak institutions, and corruption have created permissive environments for transnational threats such as terrorism, trafficking, and maritime piracy. Two conflict-affected African countries, South Sudan and Nigeria, face a credible risk of famine in early 2019; in both, insecurity has hindered aid access to affected zones.

U.S.-Africa Policy under the Trump Administration. The Trump Administration’s stated approach to Africa includes efforts to advance peace and security, boost development, expand bilateral trade and investment, respond to health challenges and humanitarian crises, and promote good governance. Other, more focused goals include, but are not limited to, the continued normalization of U.S. relations with Sudan, conflict resolution in South Sudan, credible elections in DRC, and democratic reforms in Ethiopia. Past U.S. Administrations have sought similar objectives, and the Trump Administration has maintained several Africa-focused initiatives launched by its predecessors. At the same time, the Trump Administration has proposed changes to U.S. trade policy and foreign assistance, including aid cuts, which could significantly affect U.S. engagement with Africa if implemented. The Administration also has signaled a comparatively greater focus on responding to geostrategic competition in Africa, notably vis-à-vis China. Deepening bilateral and multilateral partnerships to combat terrorism and other security threats, as well as furthering U.S. commercial interests, also have featured prominently in executive branch statements and policies.


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