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Recruiting and Motivating Community Health Workers in Zambia

Location: Lusaka, Zambia
Sample: 1,585 job applicants in 48 districts
2010 to 2014
Research Initiative: Governance Initiative
Target Group: 
Civil servants
Health care providers
Outcome of Interest: 
Provider performance
Intervention Type: 
Recruitment and hiring
AEA RCT Registration Number: 

Employing community health workers may help governments address the shortage of healthcare providers in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, it is unclear how offering incentives such as career advancement opportunities might affect who self-selects into community health worker jobs. Researchers partnered with the Government of Zambia to test the effect of two incentive strategies on applicants’ characteristics and job performance. They found that making career incentives rather than social incentives salient attracted workers who were more qualified, performed better on the job, and had similar levels of pro-social preferences.

Policy Issue 

The provision of public services—governance, health care, education—depends critically on the effort of the workers tasked with providing them. Effort can be increased in two ways: through incentives that directly reward it and through the selection of workers who are predisposed towards exerting it—that is, who have high intrinsic motivation. These two mechanisms are linked because incentives may affect not only effort on the job, but also who self-selects into a job. The effect of incentives on self-selection into public service jobs remains largely unexamined.

Context of the Evaluation 

In 2010, the Government of Zambia launched a national effort to create a new civil service position: the Community Health Worker (CHW). CHWs undergo a year of formal training, and then return to their rural home communities to work. The majority of their work consists of household visits, but they also spend one day a week in the community health post and organize community health-education meetings. They are the first line of healthcare for Zambians living in the most remote regions of the country.

Woman in uniform talks to woman with baby in her lap

Community health worker talks to a patient in Zambia

Details of the Intervention 

Researchers tested how private incentives, in the form of opportunities for career advancement, affect the skills and motivation of applicants for a new health worker position and how, in turn, this self-selection affects job performance. In the first year of the program, the Ministry of Health aimed to recruit 334 CHWs, two from each of 167 rural health posts in 48 districts of Zambia. In a randomly selected half of the districts, recruitment posters emphasized the "social" benefits of becoming a CHW, such as serving and being a leader in one's community. In the other half, recruitment materials emphasized the "career" benefits of becoming a CHW, such as opportunities for promotion and further professional development.

Other than the differing emphasis on social or career benefits, the recruitment materials and selection processes were identical. They specified that applicants needed to be Zambian nationals, ages 18-45, with a high school diploma and passing grades for at least two subjects on their secondary school graduation exams. The government received over 2,400 applications and interviewed 1,585 eligible candidates. Three hundred and fourteen attended a year-long training, and 307 graduated and began work as CHWs. Once deployed, actual benefits were identical between the two treatment groups—that is, all CHWs had the same job description (and thus the same social benefits) and the same private incentives, including the possibility of promotion after two years of service. As a result, any difference in performance was due to the selection effect of the incentives.

Recruitment posters for CHWs in Zambia emphasized either social benefits or career benefits

Poster advertising community health worker position, reading "Want to serve your community?"Poster advertising community health worker position, reading "Become a CHW to gain skills and boost your career!"

Results and Policy Lessons 

Career incentives attracted CHWs that were more qualified and had the same level of pro-social preferences as CHWs recruited by making social incentives salient. These CHWs consequently performed better on the job. By highlighting opportunities for career advancement, governments may be able to recruit better skilled and better motivated applicants to work in public service.

Watch Nava Ashraf and Oriana Bandiera discuss this evaluation in a video produced by the IGC:

Pro-social and career preferences: Applicants recruited under both approaches displayed similar levels of pro-social preferences: about 84 percent of both groups perceived their self-interest as overlapping with their community' s interests. However, applicants recruited by making career incentives salient were more ambitious regarding career advancement: a larger portion aspired to hold a higher-ranking position as a health professional in the next 5-10 years.

Ability: Applicants recruited by making career incentives salient had higher secondary school graduation exam scores overall and in natural sciences.

Performance: During the first 18 months of work, CHWs recruited by making career incentives salient conducted 94 more household visits than those recruited in the social incentives group. They did not achieve these gains by targeting easy-to-reach households or by spending less time on each visit. CHWs in the career benefits group also hosted almost twice as many community meetings (an average of 43 meetings, compared with 22 meetings in the community benefits group). The effect on performance was driven by high-performing CHWs in the career incentives group—workers who would not have been recruited if they had not seen materials emphasizing opportunities for career advancement.

Retention: There was no evidence that career incentives improved performance at the expense of retention. During the first six months after the CHWs' one-year commitment period, the number of dropouts was similar across both groups. None of the CHWs who left did so for a higher-ranking position within the Ministry of Health because the Ministry requires CHWs to work for two years before applying for promotion.

Use of health services: In communities with CHWs recruited by making career incentives salient, the number of women giving birth at health centers increased by 30 percent. Furthermore, the share of underweight children under five years of age fell by 5 percentage points. This suggests that the greater number of household visits performed by CHWs changed individuals' behaviors and may have prompted people to make better use of the health services available to them.

Nava Ashraf, Oriana Bandiera, and Scott Lee. "Losing Prosociality In The Quest For Talent? Sorting, Selection, And Productivity In The Delivery Of Public Services." Working Paper, March 2018.