The authors use evidence-based understanding of poverty dynamics in the pastoralist-based economy of northern Kenya’s arid and semi-arid lands as a case study to discuss and compare the observed impacts of two different social protection schemes on heterogeneous pastoralist households: a targeted, unconditional, cash-transfer programme designed to support the poorest, and an index-based livestock insurance programme, which acts as a productive ‘safety net’ to help stem a descent into poverty and increase resilience. Both types of social protection scheme have been shown to decrease poverty, improve food security and protect child health. However, the behavioural response for asset accumulation varies with the type of protection and the household’s unique situation. Poor households that receive cash transfers retain and accumulate assets quickly. Insured households, who are typically vulnerable yet not destitute, protect existing herds and invest more in the livestock they already own. The authors argue that differential targeting increases programme efficiency, and discuss Kenya’s current approach to implementing differentially targeted social protection.