'The government cannot do it all alone': realist analysis of the minutes of community health committee meetings in Nigeria

Health Policy Plan. 2016 Apr;31(3):332-45. doi: 10.1093/heapol/czv066. Epub 2015 Jul 25.


Since the mid-1980s, the national health policy in Nigeria has sought to inspire community engagement in primary health care by bringing communities into partnership with service providers through community health committees. Using a realist approach to understand how and under what circumstances the committees function, we explored 581 meeting minutes from 129 committees across four states in Nigeria (Lagos, Benue, Nasarawa and Kaduna). We found that community health committees provide opportunities for improving the demand and supply of health care in their community. Committees demonstrate five modes of functioning: through meetings (as 'village square'), reaching out within their community (as 'community connectors'), lobbying governments for support (as 'government botherers'), inducing and augmenting government support (as 'back-up government') and taking control of health care in their community (as 'general overseers'). In performing these functions, community health committees operate within and through the existing social, cultural and religious structures of their community, thereby providing an opportunity for the health facility with which they are linked to be responsive to the needs and values of the community. But due to power asymmetries, committees have limited capacity to influence health facilities for improved performance, and governments for improved health service provision. This is perhaps because national guidelines are not clear on their accountability functions; they are not aware of the minimum standards of services to expect; and they have a limited sense of legitimacy in their relations with sub-national governments because they are established as the consequence of a national policy. Committees therefore tend to promote collective action for self-support more than collective action for demanding accountability. To function optimally, community health committees require national government or non-government organization mentoring and support; they need to be enshrined in law to bolster their sense of legitimacy; and they also require financial support to subsidise their operation costs especially in geographically large communities.

Keywords: Community; Nigeria; decentralization; governance; primary health care.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Community Networks*
  • Cooperative Behavior*
  • Government Programs*
  • Health Policy*
  • Humans
  • Nigeria
  • Primary Health Care