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Eric Johnson's career centers on the influence of education on national economies

Eric M. Johnson

Like many young Americans, Eric Johnson developed a passion for international development in the U.S. Peace Corps.

In 1998, weeks after graduating from college, a 22-year-old Johnson flew to Kazakhstan to work as a high school teacher with the Peace Corps. Johnson landed in a country much younger than him, and one making a wide range of nation-building decisions all at the same time.

Kazakhstan, which had declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, was eager to demonstrate its separation from Russia. This was particularly evident in its newly reformed education system, where Kazakh was now competing with Russian as a language of instruction and entrée to cultural and political capital.   

Johnson witnessed this in his own village school, where students had to choose a language track at an early age. The divide was largely racial, with the ethnic Kazakhs tracking into Kazakh language streams, while Russians and other ethnic groups chose Russian tracks.

“Kazakhstan as a modern nation was six years old,” Johnson said, “and it occurred to me that this method of dividing students was a bad way to build a country. I knew the legacies of segregation in our country, and of apartheid and divide in South Africa, the Balkans and elsewhere, and hoped Kazakhstan would not repeat these mistakes.”

Two years later when Johnson returned to the United States, he chose to pursue graduate studies in education policy, seeking to understand how education contributes to—or inhibits—national development. He earned his MA in Comparative Education from the University of Minnesota and his PhD in Political Science and Education from Columbia University. Along the way, Central Asia served as his touchstone and learning lab. Johnson did his dissertation work on education corruption in Kyrgyzstan through a Fulbright Fellowship.

“For most people, the school system is a close touchpoint with their government,” Johnson said. “If that system is corrupt, segregated or ineffective, you will see that reflected in society and with detrimental effects on social and economic development.”

Johnson’s focus on education and the role it plays in the development of citizens and nations continues today.

While he originally intended to go into academia, Johnson pivoted to applied international development work after marrying a U.S. State Department Foreign Service Officer. Johnson worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Ghana, Vietnam and Washington before joining RTI in 2014.

“I remain interested in the role education plays in forming and strengthening a country,” he added. “RTI provides me the perfect place to pursue this research agenda and contribute knowledge for the global good.”

Today, Johnson works as the research director in the Governance and Economic Development Division of RTI’s International Development Group. He leads research and informs program development in education for employment and economic growth, as seen in a recent publication he authored on RTI’s work in this area: Shared Economic Opportunities: Principles for Building Dynamic People-Centered Economies.

He serves as co-director of RTI’s Global Center for Youth Employment, which brings together a diverse coalition of allies to find and grow youth employment solutions. Through collaboration and research, the Center identifies and supports rigorous programs for youth while guiding a coordinated research agenda.

Johnson also leads the RTI-Duke University Global Development Initiative, which launched in 2018 to leverage the respective institutions’ expertise and abilities to help make a greater global impact.