Background: Community health worker (CHW) programmes have received much attention since the 1978 Declaration of Alma-Ata, with many initiatives established in developing countries. However, CHW programmes often suffer high attrition once the initial enthusiasm of volunteers wanes. In 2002, Uganda began implementing a national CHW programme called the village health teams (VHTs), but their performance has been poor in many communities. It is argued that poor community involvement in the selection of the CHWs affects their embeddedness in communities and success. The question of how selection can be implemented creatively to sustain CHW programmes has not been sufficiently explored. In this paper, our aim was to examine the process of the introduction of the VHT strategy in one rural community, including the selection of VHT members and how these processes may have influenced their work in relation to the ideals of the natural helper model of health promotion.
Methods: As part of a broader research project, an ethnographic study was carried out in Luwero district. Data collection involved participant observation, 12 focus group discussions (FGDs), 14 in-depth interviews with community members and members of the VHTs and four key informant interviews. Interviews and FGD were recorded, transcribed and coded in NVivo. Emerging themes were further explored and developed using text query searches. Interpretations were confirmed by comparison with findings of other team members.
Results: The VHT selection process created distrust, damaging the programme's legitimacy. While the Luwero community initially had high expectations of the programme, local leaders selected VHTs in a way that sidelined the majority of the community's members. Community members questioned the credentials of those who were selected, not seeing the VHTs as those to whom they would go to for help and support. Resentment grew, and as a result, the ways in which the VHTs operated alienated them further from the community. Without the support of the community, the VHTs soon lost morale and stopped their work.
Conclusion: As the natural helper model recommends, in order for CHW programmes to gain and maintain community support, it is necessary to utilize naturally existing informal helping networks by drawing on volunteers already trusted by the people being served. That way, the community will be more inclined to trust the advice of volunteers and offer them support in return, increasing the likelihood of the sustainability of their service in the community.