Background Many countries in middle- and low-income countries today suffer from severe staff shortages and/or maldistribution of health personnel which has been aggravated more recently by the disintegration of health systems in low-income countries and by the global policy environment. One of the most damaging effects of severely weakened and under-resourced health systems is the difficulty they face in producing, recruiting, and retaining health professionals, particularly in remote areas. Low wages, poor working conditions, lack of supervision, lack of equipment and infrastructure as well as HIV and AIDS, all contribute to the flight of health care personnel from remote areas. In this global context of accelerating inequities health service policy makers and managers are searching for ways to improve the attraction and retention of staff in remote areas. But the development of appropriate strategies first requires an understanding of the factors which influence decisions to accept and/or stay in a remote post, particularly in the context of mid and low income countries (MLICS), and which strategies to improve attraction and retention are therefore likely to be successful. It is the aim of this review article to explore the links between attraction and retention factors and strategies, with a particular focus on the organisational diversity and location of decision-making. Methods This is a narrative literature review which took an iterative approach to finding relevant literature. It focused on English-language material published between 1997 and 2007. The authors conducted Pubmed searches using a range of different search terms relating to attraction and retention of staff in remote areas. Furthermore, a number of relevant journals as well as unpublished literature were systematically searched. While the initial search included articles from high- middle- and low-income countries, the review focuses on middle- and low-income countries. About 600 papers were initially assessed and 55 eventually included in the review. Results The authors argue that, although factors are multi-facetted and complex, strategies are usually not comprehensive and often limited to addressing a single or limited number of factors. They suggest that because of the complex interaction of factors impacting on attraction and retention, there is a strong argument to be made for bundles of interventions which include attention to living environments, working conditions and environments and development opportunities. They further explore the organisational location of decision-making related to retention issues and suggest that because promising strategies often lie beyond the scope of human resource directorates or ministries of health, planning and decision-making to improve retention requires multi-sectoral collaboration within and beyond government. The paper provides a simple framework for bringing the key decision-makers together to identify factors and develop multi-facetted comprehensive strategies. Conclusion There are no set answers to the problem of attraction and retention. It is only through learning about what works in terms of fit between problem analysis and strategy and effective navigation through the politics of implementation that any headway will be made against the almost universal challenge of staffing health service in remote rural areas.