“The parallels and distinctions between counselling and capacity building have helped me reflect on how to centre capacity-building processes around the strengths, knowledge, and experience possessed by people creating change in their communities” – Maria Rodrigues

Our colleague and Lead Researcher of Community Works, Maria Rodrigues has recently published a peer-reviewed article in the Community Development Journal, in which she discusses a parallel between capacity building in the context of community development and counselling in the context of psychotherapy. Based on this parallel Maria approaches the question: “can capacity building be conceptualized as community therapy?”

In a creative and rigorous way, Maria shares some of her experiences as a facilitator and reflects upon them by recalling elements from her psychology background. This brings to the table a different way of thinking about facilitation by comparing it to the way in which a counsellor might work with her or his clients. Using this analogy, Maria draws a parallel between a therapist, who helps individuals to cope with challenges and function better, and a facilitator, who helps groups to do the same in their communities.

A story… Maria introduces the parallel by describing the first time she facilitated a capacity-building workshop with a group of Indian Government Officials. Knowing little of the challenges and struggles they faced, she was plagued by self-doubt. What could she bring to the table? It turned out that it was her skills as a counsellor that were valued most by the group. This facilitating experience was not about her but it was about them. This gives rise to her reflection on how this analogy can be a useful way of thinking about facilitation and community capacity-building. We highlight the key points of this argument here.

Therapy and ‘Community Therapy’ as a healthy practice

Maria recalls her learning from psychology and how therapy “is not just for the sick” but also for “healthy, well-functioning individuals”. This implies an understanding of therapy as a process of reflection that helps us understand assumptions, identify barriers as well as find new and better ways of moving forward. From this perspective, therapy is beneficial for everyone at certain points of life. It is not about ‘fixing’ someone who is ‘broken’, and many times it is not even about healing the sick. Sometimes therapy is about helping healthy individuals meet extraordinary challenges or life transitions, just like development.

To explain this, Maria refers to the work of Sherry Arnstein (1968) and how this author says therapy and participatory planning might be ‘dishonest and arrogant’ when thinking these processes as ‘the cure’ for powerless and sick groups of individuals. Thus, a possible risk of thinking development processes as ‘therapy’ is to address groups or communities as ‘patients’ to be treated, ignoring the broader and structural development challenges that should be tackled as well. To avoid this pitfall, Maria argues community therapy should be addressed as a reflective process through which groups identify possible causes of their barriers to community development such as racism or discrimination. This allows groups to understand themselves as part of a system, acknowledging how barriers or difficulties might be part of a larger context and not necessarily something that should be fixed within them.

Accordingly, thinking about community therapy as part of development practice presents therapy as a platform for individuals and groups to prepare themselves, build the necessary capacities or practice possible tools to face and negotiate their situations or barriers as a group. Moreover, Maria argues how therapy should be a two-way process in which both counsellor and counselled or facilitator and facilitated are involved as equals- and not about an ‘expert’ imparting a process.


Maria deepens her analysis by referring to the work of Paolo Freire and the concept of contientization, or ‘change of consciousness’. This idea suggests how citizens reflect on their realities as the first step towards making ‘their lives better’. Rather than a top-down approach proposed by an expert, these reflections should come from the communities, proposing an understanding of community development as a ‘transformation of mindset’.

Following this idea as well as the Liberation psychology framework influenced by Freire, this transformation implies a process of ‘unpacking’ or deconstructing live experiences as a ‘therapeutic process’. It is through this process of unpacking that a community might begin to liberate itself from oppression and injustice, as well as identify how to avoid further oppression.

Facilitators as community therapists

Maria recalls some of her personal experiences as a facilitator to show the parallel with her role as a counsellor and shares some of the counselling skills that have enriched her facilitation practice:

  • Identifying as an ‘outsider’ – The client, community or group are the experts about their lives and circumstances.
  • Active listening – As therapists do, facilitators are actively engaged and asking the necessary questions.
  • Awareness of multi-directional learning processes – It is not about a therapist healing clients but rather a two-way process of transformation.

Maria mentions how these parallels and distinctions have helped her to reflect on how to address capacity-building processes. Her paper invites our team to continually reflect about our practice as facilitators and ask further questions. How can we both facilitate and experience this process of transformation? How to do this when different cultural logics and mindsets come into play? We hope you enjoy Maria’s paper as we did and we extend this invitation to constantly reflect about how to practice and approach community development.

Reference: Rodrigues, M. (2017) Community therapy? Parallels and distinctions between counselling and capacity building. Oxford University Press and Community Development Journal Vol 52 No 2. pp. 372-377.