Reporting from London — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton bluntly warned Yemen's leaders Wednesday to "take ownership" of their own long-festering problems -- corruption, internal strife and poor governance -- if they hope to overcome threats from Islamist extremists and poverty.
Clinton's comments reflected the apprehension of the Obama administration as it once again faces a dire security threat from a Muslim country whose government is marred by corruption and incompetence, like those in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"Yemen must take ownership of the challenges it faces, and of its internal affairs," Clinton said at a 20-nation gathering convened to reinvigorate international efforts to provide assistance to a country that has become a terrorist hot spot.
The conference took place as the Yemeni threat has been thrust into the world spotlight by the suspected failed attempt of Al Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate to blow up an airliner as it approached Detroit on Christmas Day.
Clinton noted that four years ago, world powers pledged $5.2 billion to help the impoverished country. However, only a small fraction of the money has been delivered, she said, partly because of donors' concern that it would not be spent as intended.
If international support is to continue, Yemen "must demonstrate that it can allocate foreign aid effectively," Clinton said, by improving security and alleviating government shortcomings that discourage economic investment.
The strong comments by Clinton contrasted sharply with the overall tone of the meeting of the new group, which will be called the Friends of Yemen. Participants in the conference, convened by the British government, sought to convey a sense of harmony between the Yemenis and donor nations.
Clinton said she was encouraged by the Yemeni government's recent efforts against terrorism, and by its plans for economic and political reform. But, in a reference to previous reform pledges that did not materialize, she said that the promises "will not mean much" if they are not implemented.
Yemen's legislature last year sought to raise the age of legal marriage for Yemeni girls to 17, but the government has blocked the move, she noted. "So young girls will continue to be compelled to marry and bear children, undermining their health, education and prospects for contributing fully to their society," she said.
"Some might ask," she said, "given the past history, why we should feel compelled to offer more assistance to Yemen. The answer is that we cannot afford inaction."
The Obama administration is stepping up military and intelligence cooperation with Yemen to combat militants, but also is expanding economic and development aid to counter the causes of the country's dysfunction.
A senior State Department official said Clinton understands that dealing with Yemen's deep-seated problems is "an uphill battle" but believes that it is nevertheless important for U.S. interests, as well as Yemen's.
The government of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been struggling with a rebellion of Shiite Houthi tribesmen in the country's north and secessionist forces in the south, while Islamist extremists have been flocking to ungoverned regions.
Yemen is in a downward spiral economically, with both its water and oil reserves dwindling and its population of 23 million rapidly increasing.
A senior State Department official said one of Clinton's chief goals in the meeting was to urge Yemen to seek a cease-fire with the Houthi rebels. Fighting between the rebels and government forces has killed thousands of people and displaced an estimated 200,000.
But in a joint news conference after the meeting, Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr Qirbi resisted U.S. pressure for a cease-fire, which would be his government's sixth in five years. He said previous cease-fires have lasted "only until the Houthis have prepared themselves again for war."
Yemeni officials have challenged some U.S. criticism of their government, saying that some of what U.S. officials view as corruption is a patronage system needed to unify a country of diverse ethnic groups.