Article Text

Download PDFPDF

The community health worker as service extender, cultural broker and social change agent: a critical interpretive synthesis of roles, intent and accountability
  1. Marta Schaaf1,
  2. Caitlin Warthin2,
  3. Lynn Freedman2,
  4. Stephanie M Topp3
  1. 1Independent Consultant, Brooklyn, New York, USA
  2. 2Averting Maternal Death and Disability, Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, New York, New York, USA
  3. 3College of Public Health, Medical and Veterinary Sciences, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Dr Marta Schaaf; martaschaafconsult{at}


This paper is a critical interpretive synthesis of community health workers (CHWs) and accountability in low-income and middle-income countries. The guiding questions were: What factors promote or undermine CHWs as accountability agents? (and) Can these factors be intentionally fostered or suppressed to impel health system accountability? We conducted an iterative search that included articles addressing the core issue of CHWs and accountability, and articles addressing ancillary issues that emerged in the initial search, such as ‘CHWs and equity.’

CHWs are intended to comprise a ‘bridge’ between community members and the formal health system. This bridge function is described in three key ways: service extender, cultural broker, social change agent. We identified several factors that shape the bridging function CHWs play, and thus, their role in fomenting health system accountability to communities, including the local political context, extent and nature of CHW interactions with other community-based structures, health system treatment of CHWs, community perceptions of CHWs, and extent and type of CHW unionisation and collectivisation.

Synthesising these findings, we elaborated several analytic propositions relating to the self-reinforcing nature of the factors shaping CHWs’ bridging function; the roles of local and national governance; and the human resource and material capacity of the health system. Importantly, community embeddedness, as defined by acceptability, social connections and expertise, is a crucial attribute of CHW ability to foment local government accountability to communities.

  • health systems
  • review

This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, build upon this work non-commercially, and license their derivative works on different terms, provided the original work is properly cited, appropriate credit is given, any changes made indicated, and the use is non-commercial. See:

View Full Text

Statistics from

Key questions

What is already known?

  • There exists a moderate body of research assessing the public health impact of CHWs and assessing CHW motivation, supervision and job challenges.

What are the new findings?

  • This paper breaks new ground in that it synthesises extant research through the lens of accountability, offering insights into the accountability ecosystem in which CHWs operate, and highlighting weaknesses in assumptions regarding CHWs and Universal Health Coverage. This synthesis surfaces the importance of the governance context.

What do the new findings imply?

  • In addition to arguing for further research, the paper suggests that the impact of CHW programs cannot be separated from larger questions related to governance, community trust and the collective power of CHWs. Governments and donors should consider these factors in determining their expectations of CHW programs.

  • The accountability framing raised many questions that were unanswered by extant research, including an emic perspective of CHWs’ accountability objectives and whether CHW unionisation fosters stronger alliances with the populations served.



Government accountability is a fundamental premise of democratic political systems. Governmental obligations are expressed in multilateral global health compacts, the international human rights regime, and national laws and policies. Public sector delivery of services is a key mechanism for realising accountability to fulfil the right to health.

Governments, donors and other global health agenda setters identify public sector Community Health Workers (CHWs) as potentially crucial to realising health service coverage goals, and, in some contexts, to the delivery of preventive and curative health services. In general, the term CHW describes workers who: are members of the communities where they work; are (at least in part) selected by the communities they serve; have little or no secondary education; and represent and/or deliver formal health services in the biomedical tradition.1 Aside from these commonalities, the characteristics of CHWs—including gender, age, education, training, scope of practice, remuneration and even nomenclature—can vary widely by programme.1

This paper is a critical interpretive synthesis (CIS) of CHWs and accountability in low-income and middle-income countries (LMICs), with selected insights from high income countries. CIS entails the iterative assessment of multi-disciplinary evidence,2 facilitating the exploration of disparate fields such as global health and accountability.

History/evolution of CHW programmes and accountability in LMICs

CHW programmes have a long history, dating back to the 1930s with China’s ‘Farmer Scholars.’ The 1960s/1970s saw a flurry of smaller scale CHW programmes in various countries, followed by efforts at national-scale government programmes.3–6 The emphasis of these early programmes was on CHWs with a ‘generalist’ mandate. Embedded within communities, CHWs would act as agents of social change by bringing health services to communities, promoting community interests vis-a-vis the health sector, and, through their culturally appropriate and physically accessible preventive and curative work, helping to improve the quality of government health services.7 8

Economic and political trends in the 1980s/1990s—including a global recession, a debt crisis in many LMICs, and donor imposed structural adjustment policies—undercut momentum for comprehensive primary healthcare and resulted in waning financial and political support for CHW programmes with broad mandates.9

Then, in the early 2000s, global support for vertical or disease-specific CHW programmes burgeoned in the context of efforts to meet coverage and treatment objectives enshrined in the health-related Millennium Development Goals. Renewed interest in CHWs led to a proliferation of new and revived programmes, with increasing focus and reliance on CHWs as a mechanism for expanding communities’ access to maternal, newborn and child health and other basic health services. Many of these programmes have produced robust evidence that CHW programmes can contribute to improvements in population health outcomes.10–13


When evoked as a principle in public sector governance, accountability can be described as ‘the continuing concern for checks and oversight, for surveillance and institutional constraints on the exercise of power’.14 In this paper, we distinguish between ’downward accountability,’ or accountability from the health system to the communities they serve, and ’upward accountability’ relations of front-line service providers to policy implementers, who in turn report to policy-makers.

This conceptual simplicity can be muddied by actual dynamics on the ground, where informal accountabilities—such as to politicians, religious institutions, foreign donors or powerful community members—may be more determinative than formal accountability relationships enshrined in law or policy. Acknowledging the importance of informal accountabilities, some theorists discuss the ‘culture of accountability’ or describe accountability as an ‘emergent property’ of a system.15 This approach emphasises the importance of political commitment, institutional rules and professional norms in shaping accountability in practice.15–19

CHW programmes are one approach for governments to fulfil the right to health, but such fulfilment depends on the accountability ecosystem—both formal and informal—in which CHWs operate. In some contexts, CHWs have an explicit mandate to be agents of downward accountability, meaning that they are expected to improve health system accountability to communities they serve.20 In other settings, they have an implicit downward accountability function, such as representing community concerns to the local health facility or educating the community about their rights and entitlements.21 At the same time, CHWs programmes enshrine formal upward accountability, as CHW report to supervisors or political actors.22–25

Despite the fact that governmental CHW programmes generally entail the expectation that CHWs foster health system accountability to the community (and vice-versa), an accountability lens has not been widely applied to studies on CHWs, outside of several exceptions.26–29


This paper is a modified CIS. CIS is iterative and inductive, and it entails synthesising data across a diverse body of empirical literature and the development of new analytic propositions, synthesising arguments and questions.2 30–32 Following a ‘principle of pluralism’ facilitates synthesis across different fields to illuminate the issue as a whole.33 The approach is apt for assessing CHWs and accountability, as they are topics from distinct fields (public health and governance) with few studies that focus on their intersection.

We describe our study as a modified CIS because we began with the development of a background brief for a June 2017 ‘think in’ on CHWs and accountability. The subsequent development of the review was informed partly by issues arising at the think-in.34 We explain in detail.

The guiding questions for the think in on CHWs and accountability were as follows: What factors promote or undermine CHWs as accountability agents? (and) Can these factors be intentionally fostered or suppressed to impel health system accountability? Based on initial review of articles addressing themes related to CHWs and accountability, the authors developed a list of relevant topics, including the notion of CHWs as a bridge between health systems and communities; CHWs interfacing with community-based structures; treatment of CHWs by the health system; CHW professional associations/unions; community perceptions of CHWs; CHWs and social accountability; and CHW perceptions of accountability. Our team conducted an electronic literature search in April 2017 using PubMed. We also did a rapid search of CHW-like programmes, including ‘barefoot doctors,’ ‘visiting nurses,’ ‘peer health educators,’ ‘health mediators,’ and ‘patronage nurses.’ We limited our focus to government-supported CHW programmes, though we did not exclude the few articles identified that focused on NGO-supported CHWs. Papers were screened for English language and relevance based on title (and abstract, if needed), and then read in full. Reference lists were used to identify further articles. This research was used to draft a background note for the think in. Based on feedback from colleagues at the meeting, we then decided to expand this background note into a more formal literature synthesis.

The second electronic literature search was conducted in December 2017 using PubMed, ScienceDirect, Scopus and Google Scholar. After having conducted the first search, we decided that the search term ‘CHW’ was adequate to capture government-run CHW programmes, so we no longer searched for synonyms of ‘CHW’. The following search terms were used: (CHW OR “community health worker”) AND (accountability OR governance OR responsiveness OR “human rights” OR empower OR empowered OR empowerment). Results were filtered to only show items published since 1978, as 1978 was the year of the Alma-Ata Conference on Primary Healthcare, which represents a conceptual starting point in the current discussions on CHWs. GoogleScholar returned a number of results where ‘CHW’ stood for something other than ‘CHW’, and so the first 250 hits were screened for relevance to CHWs. Those 103 results were exported into Mendeley, along with all the search results from the other databases, for a total of 238 unique results. These were then screened for English language and relevance to accountability based on title (and abstract, if needed), narrowing the pool down to 51 results. Abstracts for all 51 items were reviewed, and 13 ‘core’ articles were identified to be most relevant to the topic of CHWs and accountability. These ‘core’ articles were read in full by two of the authors (CW and MS) to identify any other ‘ancillary’ topics that might provide useful context for the review.

We then conducted abbreviated literature searches on these ‘ancillary’ topics through the lens of accountability, which included CHWs in primary healthcare versus vertical health programmes; the ecology of CHW programmes (ie, in cases where there are multiple programmes, how do they interact); CHW task mix; fidelity of CHW programme implementation; equity in CHW programme impacts; gender and CHW programmes; CHWs and political context/local control; and community monitoring/accountability structures. Each search was conducted independently by one of the four authors. The searches were not meant to be exhaustive and rather sought to identify 5–7 articles germane to each topic, which were then used, in conjunction with the 13 ‘core’ articles to prepare a brief synthesis of each ‘ancillary’ topic for all the authors to review. We focused on LMICs, but included articles from high income countries we felt would offer particularly relevant insights. The intent of these mini ‘ancillary’ reviews was to draw out the contextual and political economic factors that shape CHWs and their role in the larger accountability ecosystem. Limiting ourselves to a search on just CHWs and accountability would have led us to a more managerial focus that insufficiently probed the power dynamics shaping CHW ability to function as accountability agents.

The ‘ancillary’ syntheses were then integrated into the existing CHW and accountability think in background note, including as they expanded, provided nuance, or contradicted summaries and propositions already put forward in the draft. The authors were in contact regularly throughout the process to discuss the main rubrics and structure of the paper. In August 2019, we did a rapid literature review in Google Scholar on CHWs and accountability to make sure we included any research that had appeared since our last search. We integrated 36 articles at this time.

Patient and public involvement

Because this paper is not directly related to patient care, this research was done without patient involvement. Patients were not invited to comment on the study design and were not consulted to develop patient relevant outcomes or interpret the results. Nor were patients invited to contribute to the writing or editing of this document for readability or accuracy.


CHW function and accountability

CHWs comprise a ‘bridge’ between community members and the formal health system. This bridge function is described in three key ways in the peer-reviewed literature and in programme documents: service extender, cultural broker, and social change agent. These three roles can be seen as existing on a continuum from extending the reach of the current health system, to effecting change in the health system and in other social determinants of health. However, many CHW job descriptions contain elements of more than one of these roles. The multifaceted nature of the CHW bridging role is depicted in figure 1. We describe each of these roles, and then briefly discuss how each relates to health system accountability to communities.

Figure 1

Key programme approaches to the CHW bridge function. CHW, community health worker.

CHWs are often simply used to deliver health services to community members who would otherwise not have access, thereby functioning as a ‘service extender’.5 There is abundant evidence supporting the claim that CHWs can effectively bridge the service provision gap between the health system and underserved communities by, for example, offering home-based preventive and curative services such as antiretroviral therapy and insecticide-treated bed net distribution, and providing health education to communities.11–13 In this way, CHWs help to promote government realisation of its obligations to fulfil the right to health. Service extension more meaningfully promotes health system accountability if it remedies—rather than perpetuates—existing inequities. Most CHW programmes are equity oriented in their design, insofar as they target rural populations, urban slums, and other geographies that are disproportionately poor and/or hard to reach.9 There have been two reviews of whether and how CHWs promote equity. In their systematic review, McCollum et al found evidence that CHWs can reduce inequities in health service access and utilisation based on gender, place of residence, education and socioeconomic status; but, they also found that programmes rarely track equity systematically.35 For the second review, Blanchard et al found mixed results on whether or not coverage of CHW services was equitable, as well as on the impact of CHW coverage on equity in antenatal care, skilled birth attendance, and essential newborn care. The authors found that home based care practices improved more equitably than care seeking, raising important questions about CHW ability to address health systems challenges.36 Moreover, CHW programmes can replicate some of the barriers community members face at the clinic level at the community level. For example, a study in Pakistan found that lower caste CHWs were more likely to visit (and to be respected by) their lower caste peers37; Ved et al had similar findings in India.38

In contexts where programme planners are trying to address cultural differences or mistrust, CHWs may be expected to fulfil a ‘cultural broker’ role.28 39 Cultural brokers may communicate health system priorities and information to communities in culturally appropriate and acceptable ways, and, communicate community needs and concerns to a health system that suffers from cultural inaccessibility.40 41 For example, CHWs in Bangladesh have used folk music or theatre to spread awareness of health issues.10 Many CHW programmes in high-income countries are focused almost exclusively on a cultural brokerage role. In southeastern Europe, Roma Health Mediators function as linguistic and cultural interpreters and try to tailor health provider advice to the life context of poor Romani patients.42 However, developing culturally appropriate approaches requires that CHWs be granted sufficient flexibility to alter health messages as necessary. In Thailand, CHWs have described how supervisory emphasis on specific protocols and activities has limited their ability to tailor their support in response to community needs.6

The latter form of the cultural broker role—communicating community needs and concerns to the health system—may be a promising channel through which CHWs can foster health system accountability to communities. For example, health extension workers in Ethiopia’s government-led Health Extension Programme develop a plan of action based on community needs, which is then submitted to the village council and distributed to district and regional councils and health offices.43 In Australia, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers provide cultural mentorship to non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander colleagues and advocate for culturally appropriate care.28 Programmatic, social, management and political dynamics can shape the feasibility of cultural brokerage. For example, Brazilian CHWs felt their ability to elicit information about community needs was dependent on the long-term nature of their relationship with the neighbourhoods in which they work,40 suggesting frequent staff turnover might constrain cultural brokerage. The hierarchical nature of health systems can prioritise the downward flow of information, such that health workers are expected to tell CHWs what to do, not gather information from them.27 These same dynamics limit CHW ability to influence decision-makers with the expertise and information they have gathered.44–46 In fact, a review of six country case studies found no evidence that CHWs influenced health service priorities or resource allocations based on their identification of local needs.47

Expansive conceptualisations describe CHWs as ‘agents of social change’8 48 or ‘liberators’,49 advocating on behalf of their communities on topics relating to healthcare access, quality and the social determinants of health. The concept of the social change agent is integral to the explicit programme theory and/or the formal mandate of many CHW programmes. In Brazil and Bangladesh, for example, CHW training reportedly ‘privileges the determination and understanding of social, economic and environmental characteristics of the community’.10 WHO guidelines recommend that CHW preservice training should include ‘social and environmental determinants of health’ and ‘interpersonal skills related to […] community engagement and mobilisation,’ if the cadre is expected to perform these functions.50 However, of the three ‘bridging’ functions CHWs might serve, the role of social change agent is the least well documented in the literature.35 48 The scant research attempting to assess the change agent role finds that this function is rarely realised, due in part to political and organisational barriers. For instance, even though Brazil’s CHW programme model asserts that CHWs should be agents of social change, and CHWs may indeed witness and understand the social determinants that impact their communities,40 the programme has been criticised for falling short of actualising social change and instead focusing too narrowly on the biomedical aspects of the CHW role.10 This criticism has also been voiced for India’s CHW programme, with Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) being limited by lack of institutional support in a hierarchical health system, a remuneration structure that privileges delivery of services rather than affecting broader social change and challenges in fomenting community participation.27 51 52 Even in an early review of CHW programmes in Botswana, Colombia and Sri Lanka—in the era of CHWs with a ‘generalist’ mandate—Gilson et al concluded that CHWs acted primarily as service extenders, rather than change agents.53 This disconnect between rhetoric and reality can be due to unrealistic expectations of CHW programmes; poor implementation of programmes as they are designed; donor prioritisation of the service extender role, rather than the change agent role; and programme design that does not address the underlying drivers of health inequities, including power relations.8 53–55

It is important to note that there are many examples of NGO-employed community-based health workers who act as social change agents. For example, in Guatemala, NGO-employed Community Defenders collect individual complaints about barriers and discrimination experienced while seeking healthcare. They then use this evidence to advocate for municipal, provincial and national government action to address violations of the state’s right to health commitments.56 57 However, NGO-run CHW programmes are rarely national in scope. They can serve an important demonstration purpose and highlight issues to be addressed on a subnational or national policy level, but, with isolated exceptions (such as Bangladesh, where an NGO works with the government to support CHWs), they are rarely in a position to address population needs on a broad scale.58

Having defined the three key bridging functions CHWs are often envisioned to provide, we now examine a series of factors that may shape the CHW role in the accountability ecosystem. Table 1 summarises these findings, which we then examine serially in the narrative.

Table 1

Key factors influencing CHW accountability ecosystems

Local political context

Our literature review surfaced ways in which the local political context influences the design and implementation of CHW programmes, including, for example, whether or not CHWs are able to realise a change agent role. We synthesise those that were most prominent in the literature here, and discuss their implications for accountability.

First, politicians may be champions or hindrances for CHW programmes. Given the ‘moral legitimacy that attaches to healthcare’,59 it is perhaps unsurprising that politicians are often outwardly supportive of CHW programmes, even treating the provision of health services as a platform for political propaganda.59 Sustained political support has been posited as one of five key governance ‘outputs’ essential for effective governance of national CHW programmes in an empirically derived framework.60 Nonetheless, while political support can ensure consistent funding, political interference in a programme can undermine equity-oriented downward accountability. Examples include inappropriate selection of CHWs through political patronage, or locating CHWs in areas where demand for, and ownership of, the programme is weak, motivated by political favouritism or efforts to build political support in new communities.5 44 58 61 Two large literature reviews regarding CHW programmes concluded that these programmes are comparatively less vulnerable to the ‘moods of policy swings’ (as compared with other health services) and more likely to produce positive outcomes where there is a high degree of community ownership or embeddedness.1 62 The literature suggests that ensuring community ownership and embedding CHW programmes into local power structures can be more difficult to achieve in national, centrally planned programmes as compared with in smaller programmes that emerge locally, usually affiliated with non-governmental organisation (NGOs) or churches.1 63

Relatedly, meaningful community participation in CHW programmes is also influenced by the local political context.63 The spirit of community participation can be undermined by authoritative regimes, leading programmes to become more coercive than participatory in nature. Indeed, in conditions of strong antistate sentiment or authoritarian rule, government-affiliated CHWs can be perceived as agents of state surveillance, as was reported as part of an evaluation of a primary healthcare programme implemented in repopulated villages of a former war zone in Chalatenango, El Salvador and in Pakistan, among others.62–64

Interactions with other community-based structures

The primary healthcare movement sought to vest authority for planning, managing and monitoring health activities in local bodies. In addition to CHWs, community-based structures that include community members such as community or Village Health Committees (VHCs) or teams are a common strategy to promote local engagement. VHCs and similar community-based structures are government-sanctioned entities that can provide formal opportunities for interface among actors such as local elected politicians; other community representatives; religious figures; and health providers from local facilities.65 66

CHW programmes can interface with VHCs in a number of different ways, some of which may influence CHWs’ ability to facilitate upward or downward accountability. First, some global guidelines and norms recommend VHC participation in CHW selection, under the assumption that it would ensure CHWs’ competence and local acceptability.1 A CHW selected by a nurse at the local health facility may feel differently accountable from one selected by a participatory committee that includes community members. Second, in some countries CHW engagement with community-based structures is mandated as part of the national CHW policy.67 This engagement can result in pro-accountability actions; in Chhattisgarh, India, CHWs support community members to use Village Health Nutrition and Sanitation Committees as opportunities to collectively demand accountability in public service delivery.68

Also, in isolated instances, CHW programmes are formally embedded within local representative political structures. For example, in Chhattisgarh, India, CHWs are selected by village councils. Though these councils may suffer from some democratic deficit, the intent of having them select CHWs is to ensure that CHWs are accountable to the community, rather than to the health hierarchy.48 68 As a result of their not being supervised by the local health system bureaucracy, CHWs are better able to advocate vis-à-vis that bureaucracy.48 68

Treatment of CHWs by the health system

The resourcing and relative position and autonomy of CHWs in a health system impact CHWs’ ability to carry out their role, including explicit and implicit accountability functions.63 69

CHW programme remuneration and incentives (financial and otherwise) vary from country to country. Some programmes have been described as being deeply rooted in the spirit of volunteerism and thus provide no monetary payments whatsoever.23 Others have questioned the ethics of voluntary CHW programmes that often recruit from among the most highly impoverished in society. Schneider63 among others, brings evidence to bear on the importance of ‘fair’ remuneration policies and incentive systems as a basis for sustained national programming.70 71 Reflecting both ideological and operational debates regarding CHW remuneration, Closser’s ethnographic work explores conflicts in how CHWs perceive themselves versus how the health system frames their role. In Pakistan, Female Heath Workers view their role as a job, and they need and expect to be remunerated and recognised (eg, through regularised conditions) as government employees. By contrast, the governmental programme to eradicate polio frames Female Health Workers as ‘heroes’ carrying out volunteer work to save children’s lives.72 With respect to promoting accountability, Ormel et al highlight the tension between CHW payment as a means through which to hold CHWs to account, but that might leave CHWs feeling more accountable to the health system than their communities.73 Mohajer and Singh posit that the solution may lie in a two-cadre model: one that is full-time and paid, and the other part-time and volunteer, each with distinct scopes of practice.41

Different approaches to remuneration have relative strengths and weakness that, depending on the context, may produce either desirable or undesirable outcomes.61 74–76 WHO recommends that remuneration be ‘commensurate to the job demands, complexity, number of hours, training and roles that they undertake’.50 A number of CHW programmes have encountered issues with delayed payment26 73 77 78 or CHW dissatisfaction with the level of salary or incentives (financial or material) they receive, in some cases contributing to demotivation, poorer performance, and CHWs demanding informal payments.26 73 77 79 80 There is evidence to suggest that failure to deliver promised incentives is of greater concern to CHWs than the value of the incentives themselves.73

Another important programme design concern related to remuneration and accountability is the payment of incentives to CHWs on completion of certain tasks or outcomes, such as accompanying women in labour to facilities and immunising children. Whereas Andreoni et al apply an economics lens to show how tailored contracts can incentivise desired outcomes81 in a working paper on pay-for-performance incentives (not specific to CHWs), Miller and Babiarz outline a variety of ‘behavioural distortions’ that can arise from contracting certain outcomes: workers can focus their efforts disproportionately on the contracted outcomes, thereby crowding out other important but non-contracted activities82; when making decisions between multiple contracted outcomes, workers might focus on those with the highest marginal return (ie, greatest financial reward for least effort); and, they can choose to prioritise patients who are most likely to produce the desired outcomes, that is, cherry-picking healthier people who live in less remote settings.83–85 Some of these concerns have been borne out in large government-run CHW programmes in LMICs.75 Indeed, evidence from India consistently supports the conclusion that when CHWs encounter incentive-based payments, they focus their efforts on the incentivised activities (usually biomedical care) and neglect other tasks (such as social activism).26 27 44 66 68

Supervision is a common challenge, with implications for both downward and upward accountability. Inadequate or inappropriate supervision, such as supervisors not visiting employee work sites or supervisory overemphasis on data reporting, can demotivate CHWs.47 73 75 80 86 CHW perceptions of supervision have also been shown to predict job satisfaction, organisational and community commitment, work conscientiousness and performance.87 88 A trial of team-based goal setting for CHWs in Bihar in which health workers worked in teams towards collective goals and were rewarded with public recognition and non-financial incentives demonstrated improvements in motivation and performance.89 Other alternative approaches to supervision such as community supervision (community defines expectations, tracks performance and provides feedback), group supervision (supervisory visits include multiple CHWs, who can work together to find creative solutions to shared problems) and peer supervision are also being tested,9 90 91 but these remain areas for further research, according to a recent literature and consultative review.61

Medicine and equipment shortages among CHWs or at facilities and poor quality of care in facilities limit CHWs’ ability to perform their duties and gain community trust.10 26 40 44 73 79 92 CHWs regularly refer patients to health facilities for further care, and if those clinical services are not available when they arrive or providers reject or ignore CHW referrals, the CHW’s credibility can be damaged.26 27 88 In Malawi, CHWs facing supply shortages reported purposefully avoiding their communities and CHW duties rather than dealing with community dissatisfaction.86

CHWs may also feel disrespected by health providers, which can be detrimental to the formation of positive working relationships that enable CHWs to fulfil the cultural broker or social change agent role. In Zambia, CHWs have reported feeling that facility staff did not consider them to be part of the service delivery team, or did not trust them to dispense drugs or even to be in the dispensary alone.79 CHWs in Malawi and Australia felt nurses considered them inferior because their work was perceived to be less important28 86 or because they were less educated.93 Not only can disrespectful treatment of CHWs harm their relationships with health providers, it can also negatively impact CHW performance44 88 and degrade community trust in the health system more broadly.86 94

CHW treatment by the health system is gendered. In many contexts, CHWs are primarily—if not exclusively—women. Bias can manifest in normalised poor treatment by fellow healthcare workers, including sexual harassment and general disrespect from male colleagues.95 96 CHW programmes can explicitly address gender dynamics within the health systems and communities at large, through activities such as strong supervisory support.38 97 Failure to address or accommodate gender hierarchies can lead to high rates of absenteeism due do social limitations on women’s mobility.37

Community perceptions of CHWs

CHWs commonly report that they feel respected or appreciated by the community for their role as a CHW,10 98 99 however, there are a number of contextual factors that can influence the CHW–community relationship. Community perceptions of CHWs’ motivation and competence shape their willingness to communicate with and to listen to CHWs, which in turn shapes CHW ability to fulfil the role of service extender, cultural broker or social change agent. The embeddedness of CHW programmes is widely understood to shape community acceptance and relevance.38 We identified empirical support for the importance of embeddedness, as well as several factors that complicate this assumption.

Acceptance may be greater when CHWs are from the community they serve, have higher levels of training, were selected by the community, and have some medical or other resources at their disposal.1 26 40 100 101 Interestingly, a study in Uganda found community acceptability to be adversely affected by CHWs’ low levels of education and social status, characteristics that are often expected to improve acceptance by making CHWs more relatable and less intimidating than health facility staff. Community acceptance in this study increased as CHWs gained more experience.99 Similarly, Grossman-Kahn et al found the informality of the Brazilian CHW role to result in lower community regard, and proposed that formal certification may increase community confidence in CHWs.40 These studies suggest that professionalising CHWs may not inherently impair embeddedness. Furthermore, the gender, caste, HIV status and other attributes of CHWs can also shape the way they are received by various communities.100–102

There is also evidence that when communities perceive CHWs to be affiliated with state actors whose interests differ from patients’, they are less likely to be understood as boosting health system accountability to patients. In India, CHWs are incentivised to encourage women to deliver in facilities even though this may contradict the preferences of some patients.103 104 The fact that CHWs promote services that reflect health system priorities aligns them with the health system in the eyes of the community.27 44 52 Direct government interference can further align them with the government and undercut CHW fulfilment of their mandate. For instance, CHWs in Ethiopia are sometimes made to participate in work in areas unrelated to their health duties at the request of government administrators from other sectors: ‘Sometimes we are involved in the activities coming from women affairs and the education sector. We are also involved in political matters. We are quarrelling many times with people about these things. If we are not involved in these activities, they cut our salary’.105 In contrast, in Thailand, seeing CHWs work alongside public health professionals increased CHW credibility in the eyes of the community.6 The extent to which health system affiliation damages community perceptions of CHWs may depend in part on whether or not the community has a history of mistrusting the government.106 107

CHW professional associations/unionisation

In some countries, CHWs have unionised or formed professional associations to advocate for labour rights and other policy changes. Collective voice or action may be especially difficult, but potentially impactful, in hierarchical government health systems, especially among CHWs who occupy low-status positions both in the health system and in society more broadly.

In India, ASHAs have staged a number of protests and strikes at both the state and national levels seeking increased wages and permanent government employee status.108 109 Their efforts have resulted in some successes, such as securing social security and maternity benefits, increased wages, accident benefits and life insurance coverage.38 110 Meanwhile, the All Pakistan Ladies Health Workers Welfare Association has pursued a legal strategy rather than political advocacy, resulting in a number of favourable rulings from Pakistan’s Supreme Court.72 111 In the USA, the Massachusetts Association of CHWs has on two occasions drafted legislation that was ultimately passed, one of which reformed state law to require the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to develop recommendations for building a sustainable CHW workforce.112 CHW associations also exist in Australia, Brazil, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, Peru, Romania and South Africa, with varying remits, membership coverage and achievements.113

However, in order to engage the state as a collective, CHWs must have adequate self-efficacy and political space. Closser et al explored the discourses and experience of empowerment among unpaid female CHWs in Ethiopia.114 Their work and Mlotshwa et al identified positive experiences in relation to mobility and self-actualization, but described how requiring women to work without compensation on predetermined tasks reinforced gender hierarchies and limited the female CHWs’ ability to exercise political power or gain authority within the health system.101 115

It is unclear whether and under what conditions CHW organising promotes community interests. Community interests may be served simply by the virtue of better morale among CHWs, or through more direct action, such as CHWs lobbying for greater or more appropriate resource allocation to the community. However, much of the organising described above focused on labour rights, and did not engage larger questions of the political determinants of health inequalities. There has been some discussion in the Indian context about lack of civil society support for CHW organising, as community members are CHW service recipients rather than CHW labour rights allies.110 In Chhattisgarh, India, volunteer CHWs are attempting to unionise for government employment, which some feel would take them further away from the community and embed them more firmly in the government.48


Summary of findings

The CHW linking role can be understood on a continuum, from service extender to social change agent, with service extenders extending the reach of the current health system, and social change agents effecting change in the health system and in other social determinants of health. CHW fulfilment of these linking functions has implications for the type of accountability they engender. Service extenders may improve coverage and access to preventive and curative services, potentially in a way that promotes equity. Social change agents can provide these biomedical services and address some of the social determinants of health, potentially by creating a source of countervailing power at the community level. In a social change agent scenario, CHWs are grassroots representatives of community interests, and they leverage their official position and access to make demands on the state. However, the social change agent function may only be feasible in situations where the political context allows for CHWs to both represent and counteract the state.

Our synthesis addresses a number of factors that shape CHWs’ role in the accountability ecosystem. Some of these factors—such as supervision and remuneration—are typically addressed in studies, reviews and recommendations related to CHWs. Other factors—such as unionisation and other forms of collective action—are less commonly included. Many papers reviewed raised the prospect that there may exist inherent tensions between downward and upward accountability in the CHW role. Reality is more complex than just upward versus downward, however. Multiple accountabilities may coexist, with CHWs balancing demands from their communities, the government, and other actors with power, such as local politicians.

Analytical propositions

These propositions are mid-level theories, representing aggregation and synthesis of the findings.

Though we presented the findings in a serial fashion, the themes identified are all inter-related and self-reinforcing. For example, the degree of CHW embeddedness is a feature of programme design, but this feature can promote CHW effectiveness, which in turn reinforces their embeddedness in the community.

CHWs are part of the community health system, but the ways CHWs promote accountability depends heavily on the type of governance at local and national level. Our synthesis certainly showed that many of the functions traditionally included in health systems stewardship are important for CHW accountability. However, here, we are concerned with more micro attributes of governance, such as decision space within the health sector, government tolerance for input and dissent, and to what extent the government’s approach to development is ‘top down.’ State intent is key; the government may want the CHW programme to effect transformative change, surveil community members, or something in the middle. Even local or programmatic decisions like incentive structures can be one way to communicate state intent. Mohajer and Singh suggest that the creation of more than one cadre or more decentralised cadres may help to address some of the inherent tensions related to CHWs and accountability.41 This approach may be especially pertinent in settings where mistrust of the national government is high. Indeed, as the discussion of CHWs’ treatment by the health system and labour organising reveals, CHWs can more successfully act as agents of accountability when the state is accountable to them.

Community embeddedness, as defined by acceptability, social connections and expertise, is a crucial attribute of CHW ability to foment local government accountability to communities. Embeddedness does not shape CHW influence over the local health sector, but it does shape their ability to change behaviours within the community and to learn about community priorities. However, the determinants of acceptability vary by context, and seem to be related to community trust in the government. Fostering embeddedness is also not simple, as it relates to all elements of the programme, ranging from funding, scope of practice, training and in-built mechanisms for interactions with other community structures. Jonathan Fox proposes the notion of ‘vertical accountability,’ as the idea that civil society efforts to instigate institutional change are most effective when they have explicit strategies to address power structures at multiple levels.115 State intent and capacity may direct and support CHWs to be agents of downward accountability, but without community acceptance and participation there is little hope for transformative change. Meanwhile, embeddedness facilitates CHW effectiveness at the community level, but not necessarily above that. We do not expect that a government-run CHW programme should have the same accountability objectives as a civil society monitoring effort, but the conceptual model of vertical accountability suggests that a framework for accountability and CHWs might include embeddedness, collective action among CHWs above the level of the local health facility, and the political context.

While national governance and community embeddedness matter greatly, CHW ability to function in all three roles also depends on the human resource and material capacity of the local health system. While national governance and community embeddedness matter greatly, CHW ability to function in all three roles also depends on the human resource and material capacity of the local health system. The local health system is generally responsible for providing CHWs with supervision and payment; competently and respectfully receiving patients CHWs refer; facilitating CHWs’ service extender and cultural broker roles; and, demonstrating respect for CHWs’ role. Where such support is not present, it can undercut achievement of coverage objectives, as well as community trust and respect for CHWs.

Future research

The accountability framing raised many questions that were unanswered by extant research.

While there is significant literature on what CHWs do and what challenges they face in completing their mandated tasks, there is much less emic literature on what CHWs want, including whether and how CHWs want to foster health system accountability to communities. Perhaps many seek professional status and training, and are not interested in acting beyond the service extender role, such as representing the priorities of the communities they serve or galvanising action on the social determinants of health. If they do want to act as social change agents, we need to know more about what political conditions allow CHWs to create countervailing power that pushes the state to go further in delivering quality services and in addressing community priorities. Existing research on CHW unionisation focuses on their advocacy for improved working conditions. We need to understand more about if and how CHW engagement of the state as a collective actor fosters stronger alliances with the populations they serve, or takes CHWs further away from the community, due to professionalisation and their wielding political power. This is related to some of the conflicting findings on embeddedness; to what extent does CHWs mirroring the demographic and social make up of their communities engender trust and/or reproduce harmful social hierarchies? Local level, contextualised research and action is needed.

In addition, there are several pertinent research questions that could be explored by integrating health systems research approaches with accountability research approaches. First, there is a larger political science literature on structures straddling the state and society. VHCs and similar entities can be such mechanisms. Cross synthesis and integration of existing and new CHW and community governance literature would help us to flesh out an ecology of state-society interface within and beyond health. This ecology is an integral backdrop to CHWs’ functioning, particularly for the social change agent end of the linking continuum. Second, group or peer supervision of CHWs and incentive structures that reward community accountability emerged as potentially innovative approaches for more adaptive, locally driven CHW programmes. Assessing the impact of such programmes from a public health and accountability perspective would shed light on their ability to improve programme outcome metrics and accomplish broader human rights and governance goals.


In summary, our synthesis raises conceptual questions and describes relevant findings in peer-reviewed literature. We build on strong health systems research to propose areas for future research and to suggest political economy lenses that may further elucidate CHW decision space and accountability functions. Whether and how CHWs promote government accountability for service delivery is inevitably tied to the larger political and technical objectives and capacity of the state.


Jonathan Fox and Angela Bailey of the Accountability Research Center at American University provided thought partnership in the initial think in, as well as insightful comments on this paper. Amy Manning of Averting Maternal Death and Disability provided crucial research and editorial assistance.


View Abstract


  • Handling editor Seye Abimbola

  • Twitter @martaschaaf, @globalstopp

  • Contributors All author conceived of the paper. With guidance from SMT and MS, CW did the initial search that comprised the 'think in' brief (see the 'Methods' section for further detail). CW drafted that brief, with editing provided by MS, SMT and LF. MS led the process of developing a process to expand and adapt the think in brief to the critical interpretive synthesis; all named authors conducted research and drafted text as part of this iterative process. MS led final manuscript preparation, with substantive input from all named authors.

  • Funding The think-in and this paper were funded by a grant from the John D and Catherine T. MacArthur foundation to the Averting Maternal Death and Disability Program in the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health at the Mailman School of Public Health.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data availability statement Data sharing not applicable as no datasets generated and/or analysed for this study.

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.