Supporting the "Ni-Nis" of El Salvador

The government of El Salvador has announced that it is going to target millions of dollars at the “Ni-Ni” population of El Salvador. “Ni-Ni” refers to those young people who are neither in school nor studying. (Ni estudian, ni trabajan). The program will include job-training and economic support for targeted youth, with a goal of eventually creating employment for 15,000 youth. The government is using funding designated for violence reduction efforts, arguing that the creation of job opportunities for young people is essential for reducing the problem of criminal violence in the country.

The Ni-Ni support program is being roundly criticized by conservative ARENA politicians and business interests who assert it is just a populist subsidy which will not generate employment. They would prefer that the government stimulate the economy to create jobs, which they say will provide greater opportunity for youth. El Salvador’s Roman Catholic archbishop, in contrast, has praised the proposal.


A valuable study exploring the situation of the Ni-Nis of El Salvador was published earlier this year by Fundación Dr. Guillermo Manuel Ungo (FundaUngo).

The study revealed that the Ni-Nis consist of 1,645,227 youth between the ages of 16 and 29 years, or about 26.3% of the Salvadoran population. Of that group, 23.2% were enrolled in school and not working, 43.6% had left school and were working, 7.2% were going to school and working, and 26% were neither in school nor working (the Ni-Nis) or roughly 415,000 Salvadoran youth.

Of the Ni-Nis, 80% are female and only 20% male. 47% of the Ni-Nis have not completed basic education (ninth grade). 54% of the Ni-Ni population lives in poverty.

Two thirds (67.6%) of the Ni-Nis indicate that the reason that they are not studying or working is responsibility at home. This could situations ranging from a mother caring for her children, or a youth staying at home to care for siblings or elderly family members.

The fact that 80% of the Ni-Nis are female, and that the primary reasons for not studying or working are domestic obligations may suggest a different policy course than the job-training proposed by the government. Greater access to child care, greater support for care to the elderly, family planning services to reduce the incidence of teen pregnancy and unplanned pregnancy, and women’s empowerment, could all reduce the barriers to work for those young women who would like to work but cannot. (Of course this would require significant financial resources which are in short supply in the country).

Where family obligations are not an issue – the country needs to generate jobs and to improve accessibility and quality of education to fill the jobs. Technical and vocational training are needed, as well as vocational counseling. If the newly announced program does some of these things for the Ni-Ni population, it will be a good start but will not yet address the bigger structural issues.