Many global health practitioners are currently reaffirming the importance of recruiting and retaining effective community health workers (CHWs) in order to achieve major public health goals. This raises policy-relevant questions about why people become and remain CHWs. This paper addresses these questions, drawing on ethnographic work in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, between 2006 and 2009, and in Chimoio, a provincial town in central Mozambique, between 2003 and 2010. Participant observation and in-depth interviews were used to understand the life histories that lead people to become CHWs, their relationships with intended beneficiaries after becoming CHWs, and their social and economic aspirations. People in Ethiopia and Mozambique have faced similar political and economic challenges in the last few decades, involving war, structural adjustment, and food price inflation. Results suggest that these challenges, as well as the socio-moral values that people come to uphold through the example of parents and religious communities, influence why and how men and women become CHWs. Relationships with intended beneficiaries strongly influence why people remain CHWs, and why some may come to experience frustration and distress. There are complex reasons why CHWs come to seek greater compensation, including desires to escape poverty and to materially support families and other community members, a sense of deservingness given the emotional and social work involved in maintaining relationships with beneficiaries, and inequity vis-à-vis higher-salaried elites. Ethnographic work is needed to engage CHWs in the policy process, help shape new standards for CHW programs based on rooting out social and economic inequities, and develop appropriate solutions to complex CHW policy problems.
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