Drawing on an analysis of the implementation of Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) in the Somali periphery, we consider how the programme is promoted as an ‘innovative’ social protection programme that links food security with development projects. Underpinning its ‘innovative’ role is a community-based approach, focusing upon the institutions, values and capacities of a community. Taking the case of the nomadic pastoralists in Ethiopia’s Somali region, we consider the role of clans as the ‘dominant’ grassroot socio-political organizations. Our analysis, drawing on ethnographic fieldwork shows how in the implementation of PSNP the mobilization and (re)deployment of clanship values and rules create legible and governable Somali pastoral subjects. This is in line with the Ethiopian state’s conception of ‘improvement’ and ‘modern’ way of life based on sedentary-based development and governance. We illustrate how clan leaders unwittingly (re)organize their clan (leadership) values and capacities to support this project. We argue that clan-based implementation of PSNP has become an ‘effective’ mechanism of extending state power and governing nomadic pastoralists, leading to changes in relations of authority and in forms of (inter)subjectivity between pastoralists, their clan (leaders) and the state. Towards this end, we put forward the concept of ‘government through clanship’ to reflect the assemblage of these practices, processes and changes which would offer critical analytical insights into social policies claimed to be community-based.