Opinions

“Accountability, Transparency and Access to Information”:  A report on ICA’s 2103 Conference

  • Posted on January 7, 2014

This past year marked a major change in the format of the conferences and gatherings organised by the ICA (International Council on Archives). Previously a Congress or grand conference was held every four years and during the in-between years an annual meeting of CITRA (the French acronym for the Round Table on Archives) was held. CITRA was the forum for the world’s National Archivists, and heads of professional organisations and committees. South Africa hosted a CITRA conference with the theme “Archives and Human Rights” in Cape Town in 2003. This critical conference brought the human rights issue into the international professional archival discourse for the first time and is still regarded as a watershed in the development of the ICA. In Brussels I attended a meeting of the Human Rights Working Group (HRWG), which was established at the Cape Town CITRA conference and which provides a vital service of research, analysis and advocacy in the field.

The CITRA format was dispensed with at the Brisbane Congress of the ICA in 2012 and a new system of annual professional conferences was initiated for the three years between congresses. The National Archivists would meet for one day of the conference in a Forum for National Archivists (with the acronym FAN).  Under this new format,  the ICA is encouraging all regional and related professional meetings and conferences to be held in association with or around the time of the annual ICA conference. The Brussels conference with the theme “Accountability, transparency and access to information” was the first gathering to be held according to the new arrangements. If this succeeds then the distinction between the annual conference and the quadrennial congress will become very blurred and the ICA may go the way of IFLA which has a major international library conference each year.

Brussels, being the seat of the European Union and many international organisations, made an ideal venue for the conference. The arrangements went smoothly, the modern conference centre was efficient (and characterless) and the conference attracted nearly five hundred delegates, far more than any previous CITRA conferences. The weather, while cold, was at least neither slushy nor too wet.  The discussions were focused, professional and challenging.

There were approximately forty professional papers delivered in parallel sessions so the lone individual delegate had hard choices to make. There were also four keynote addresses delivered in plenary.  The first was by Anne Thurston, Director of the International Records Management Trust (IRMT), which does such good work in the field of records management education and support in the under-resourced countries of the world.  Dr Thurston spoke on the need for sound record keeping both in the digital and in the paper spheres as the first requirement for robust transparency.  Her contention is that good governance, transparency and accountability cannot be achieved without first having the basis for sound record-keeping and management.

Willem Debeuckelaere, the President of the Belgian Privacy Commission, gave his address on “Access to Information and Personal Data Protection”;

Andrae Ruprechter,  Director of Communication and Transparency Council of the European Union,  spoke on “The Contribution of Archivists to Accountability and Transparency”;

Alison North, the International Director of ARMA International (ARMA is the North American professional information management organisation) asked the question “Beyond Our Own Borders – Just who is Accountable and why does it Matter?”

The four papers set the scene for the detailed presentations over the following two days. The overarching link between them was the centrality of archives and records management in good governance and public accountability for which transparency is the key. While that may sound clichéd, there was a pertinent subtext: if the role of archivists is so important to the modern world, would we archivists be ready to meet the challenge if the world suddenly accepted our importance?

Regrettably, (but understandably as this was a conference in the heart of Europe), there was only one paper presented by an African, Ellen Namhila, formerly the National Archivist of Namibia and now of the University of Namibia, who presented a fascinating paper on the under-researched contents of the colonial archival heritage of Namibia.  On the themes of transparency and accessibility there was an odd, but fascinating paper hidden behind the bland title of “Freedom of Information and Archival Appraisal: Citizens Influencing the Choice of Historical Evidence”. The presenter was a journalist who had played a major role in securing the release of British military records relating to UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects!). These files attracted more public attention than virtually any other records series at Kew (the home of the National Archives of the UK, formerly the Public Records Office) and the British Archives website received millions of hits!

Looking towards the future, there were presentations on digitally-born archives and on attitudes to personal privacy among young people who have grown up connected online. The vast changes in technology are paralleled by equally great shifts in attitude among modern youth. The challenge for archivists of the future is how preserve the core principles of the past in the almost unimaginably different future.

On a personal note I thoroughly enjoyed reconnecting with my profession at an international level after my involuntary and enforced absence for the past three years and deeply appreciated the warm welcome I received from African and international colleagues. The archival profession is moving forward and digitising existing paper records is now merely a small part of a major paradigm shift in how we are going to select and preserve digitally-born records. The challenges of digitising paper records are going to seem simple when we look back. The conference was a foretaste of the issues that are going to preoccupy our minds for the next decade or two.

The conference programme is available on the ICA website http://www.ica.org and so will the conference papers, as they become available. I urge all archivists with an interest in the future of the profession to study the papers carefully or risk being left behind.

The 2014 conference will be held in Girona, Spain, and the 2015 conference is scheduled to be held in Maputo, Mozambique. There appears to be some uncertainty about the 2015 conference. At the beginning of the report I said that the ICA is encouraging the grouping of regional and other gatherings around the annual conference, but the 2015 ESARBICA conference is scheduled to be held in Harare. Talk in the corridors revolved around a rumoured ICA demand to ESARBICA to move its conference from Harare to Maputo or Maputo would possibly lose the conference.

If true, this would be a loss for Africa as a whole. The general meeting at the ICA conference decided “in principle” that the 2015 venue should be Maputo, but, constitutionally, the final decision is a matter for the ICA Executive Board. While I understand the necessity to align local, regional and international conferences in terms of the new constitutional regime, my view is that ESARBICA should be allowed the benefit of a ‘sunset clause’ as it had long since decided to hold its conference in Zimbabwe.  While there may be anti-Zimbabwean pressures from certain quarters, I believe we should stand by our colleagues in Harare and Maputo and not allow the application of a double standard to our region. After all, a few years ago the ICA held a major conference in a rich, but not noticeably democratic, Middle-Eastern country without blinking a political eye.  The ICA has a long history of political neutrality which enabled it to survive the Cold War and subsequent national and international political divides.  It would be a tragedy to now to succumb to such pressures.


Graham Dominy

Dr Graham Dominy served for more than ten years as National Archivist of South Africa. In June 2013 he reached a settlement with the Department of Arts and Culture which was made an Order of the Labour Court. In terms thereof he will retire on a full pension, with a certificate of Good Conduct and all references to misconduct, suspension and dismissal expunged from the record. He attended the 2013 ICA conference as an individual member.

 

 

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