The Green Climate Fund, donors, governments and non-governmental organisations, among others, are pouring vast amounts of financial and human capital into community-based adaptation across the developing world. The underlying premise is that the world’s majority—who have the minority of financial capital—are living on the margins and are the most vulnerable and at risk from climate change. Such a reality, coupled with a deficit understanding of the majority world, is resulting in significant implications for how the ‘adaptation industry’ (those that fund, design and implement projects) go about their work. Drawing on research evaluating 15 community-based adaptation projects in Vanuatu we found that despite genuine attempts, projects invariably fell short of success, longevity and sustainability. We argue that the indifferent, albeit variable, success of most projects is attributable to the construction of the geographical scale of ‘community-based’ and the deficit view flowing down to the ‘community’ through hubris policy, funding guidelines and individual implementers. Our findings show that ‘experts’ are working in Pacific communities, conducting assessments that involve asking what ‘community’ needs are, going away to design projects, coming back and implementing projects, which communities are inevitably challenged to sustain once funding has ceased. We postulate that these limitations stem from such a formation of adaptation work that pejoratively fails to see Pacific Islanders in situ as the best litmus test of their own agendas, needs, aspirations and futures and in the best position to make decisions for themselves about what and how they might become more resilient. We claim from a growing body of evidence and new frontiers in research that, rather than adaptation being ‘community-based’, it needs to be ‘locally led’, not limited to ‘communities’, and should take place across different entry points and incorporate, as appropriate, elements of autonomous/Indigenous peoples ownership.