I read this book called Catastrophe in the Making
about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. It took the long view, tracing New Orleans' history from its start as a very small settlement where piracy was an important part of the local economy to the modern day.
One of the things the author pointed out was that, of the several canals in and around New Orleans, only the first two were built with local money. They were small, short canals that made local shipping more efficient, and local business-owners found it worthwhile to build them.
Every canal after that was a product of the Growth Machine.
The Growth Machine is the author's term for when a group of business-owners and local government officials band together and announce they're going to "boost Smalltown" and "help Smalltown grow" and so forth. They petition the state and national government for grants for large construction projects---it may be a canal, or a highway, or a dam, or 'urban renewal'. They claim it will produce wonderful economic development, new businesses, trade, agriculture, the sky's the limit!
But it doesn't. The real point of these projects is to bring in outside money for the construction. The construction-company owner and his buddy the mayor pass out the grant money to their supporters, thereby entrenching their own power more firmly. The construction does happen, but it never generates any new economic activity. The local economy "grows" by exactly the amount of grant money coming in, for exactly as long as the grant runs, and then it goes back to its old size. The town didn't have the skills and opportunity to make productive use of the construction, or the construction was never capable of being useful. No canal on earth could have turned New Orleans the river town into the seaport it wanted to be, and the river that the grant applications described as narrow, shallow, choked with snags, and plagued by fogs was still deeper and wider than any canal they could have built. The canals built with federal grant money were mostly obsolete before they were finished, or obsolete soon after, but from their boosters' perspective, that wasn't a problem; it had never really been about shipping, only about getting the money. Which was why they had patiently lobbied, for decades, over the Army Corps of Engineers' strong objections, for federal funding: they certainly weren't going to fund useless canals themselves. Just like the pirates of old, they were bringing in outside resources rather than producing anything.
A few days after I read this I watched some early episodes of Leverage that I'd missed the first time around. In the first episode, Sophie pretends to represent the Nigerian government, looking for a contractor to build a fleet of small planes. The airplane-company guy points out that Nigeria has very few airports, with very bad runways, could they really use new planes? And Sophie says that that isn't the point, now is it? The planes will be paid for with foreign aid, so don't worry your pretty little head about it.
And I thought, this is the Growth Machine. Foreign grant money coming in, and someone will get the contract in exchange for supporting the politicians in power, and all the sub-contractors will get their own shares to hand out in exchange for support, and probably there will be bribes at every step. And it won't matter to the lobbyists if the planes are never used.
It's useful to have a term for a phenomenon that comes up so often. Makes it easier to distinguish the Growth Machine from real development.