Meet the Innovative MoFo Clients That Are Working to Improve Living Conditions for Displaced Individuals

For many of us, it’s easy to take everyday things for granted; things like a roof over our head, a floor under our feet, a safe place to sleep, or clean-running water. But for people living in emerging countries or natural disaster zones, these seemingly commonplace things aren’t always guaranteed. Two innovative nonprofits — Build Change and Every Shelter– are working to change that.

Build Change

MoFo began working with Build Change in 2009, when the group came to us seeking advice on how to best protect its intellectual property. Build Change designs disaster-resistant houses and schools in emerging nations and trains builders, homeowners, engineers, and government officials to build them. We have also assisted the international nonprofit with corporate governance and employment advice.

Today, MoFo’s relationship with Build Change continues as it expands its international efforts. Corporate finance associate Rose Zukin Pierson has worked closely with Build Change, reviewing and updating its bylaws to reflect its current operations and ensure they are aligned with best practices for California nonprofits. MoFo of counsel Justin Haan and associate Jill Tellioglu from the firm’s Technology Transaction Group recently advised Build Change regarding a potential partnership with a private company and prepared and revised non-disclosure agreements for use by Build Change in future engagements.

Build Change was formed in 2004, shortly after founder Dr. Elizabeth Hausler traveled to India as a Fulbright Scholar to study the way people rebuilt their homes after major disasters, such as the 7.7-magnitude earthquake that struck Gujarat, India in 2001. What she discovered was that the homeowners, whose homes had been rebuilt by international relief agencies, often feared the construction wouldn’t hold up over time, especially if another natural disaster were to test its strength.

Elizabeth also discovered that homes built by these agencies in developing countries may not be culturally appropriate or sustainable, given local construction sector resources. To address this challenge, the Build Back Better program was established to ensure that homeowners are actively involved in the decision-making and construction process. This homeowner-driven reconstruction and retrofitting approach enables vulnerable families to live in safer houses because they are trained to manage the purchase of good-quality construction materials and to oversee construction. Additionally, the program works to connect homeowners with financing options to support rebuilding their homes.

By using materials and skills that are available through the local private sector, Build Change has been helping communities not only to rebuild, but also to stimulate local demand for materials and services, creating jobs and the capacity to apply the home-building process to other critical structures, such as schools and cultural institutions. Over the last 15 years, the organization has constructed nearly 80,000 safe buildings, creating nearly 30,000 jobs and training 54,000 people in its sustainable building processes. Rose notes that “working with Elizabeth has been a pleasure. She’s always responsive to our advice when it comes to regulations and other matters. You can tell how passionate she is about running the organization effectively, so it’s no surprise what she’s been able to accomplish. I look forward to working with her and her team for years to come.”

Every Shelter

Another innovative organization that MoFo has been proud to partner with is Every Shelter, a nonprofit dedicated to developing low-cost, high-impact products geared towards improving the lives of refugees living in shelters. Every Shelter’s best-known product, the Emergency Floor system, provides families living in shelter encampments with quickly deployable, lightweight, and insulated flooring that is easy to install and requires no tools.

There are currently millions of refugees living in shelters, which are intended to be temporary but oftentimes end up being not so temporary. Many live in these makeshift shelters for upwards of 12-17 years, most with no flooring. In crowded camps, this often means a dirt floor with poor drainage, flooding issues, and no barriers against sewage and human waste. As noted in an article by Every Shelter Co-Founder Nicole Iman, titled What Difference Can a Floor Make?, a study on the impacts of a social program in Mexico called Piso Firme (Firm Floor) found that by replacing dirt floors with a clean floor surface, parasitic infections in children can be decreased by as much as 78%, diarrhea by 49%, and anemia by 81%. The study also found an increase in childhood cognitive development by up to 96%. Adults responded to solid flooring with lower rates of depression and stress and higher satisfaction in their quality of life.

Our first project for Every Shelter engaged a New York litigation team, London associate Harriet Sassoon, and trainee solicitors Ziqi Qi and Matthew Rodin to develop a statement of supply-chain principles and expectations for Every Shelter’s suppliers. The statement covered slavery, child labor, and safe working conditions.

Beijing corporate senior counsel Sherry Yin was poised to assist Every Shelter with its next request: negotiating contracts with potential Emergency Floor manufacturers in China.  However, the Covid-19 epidemic and other developments led the group to move its manufacturing to Turkey instead.  While advising on contracts in Turkey was beyond our capacity, we succeeded in connecting Every Shelter to pro bono counsel there through the Lex Mundi Pro Bono Foundation.

Most recently, Every Shelter has sought our help to engage with the Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to ensure that its shipments of Emergency Floor products to organizations that house refugees in Syria would not violate U.S. sanctions. Washington, D.C. litigation of counsels Aki Bayz and Michael Dobson, as well as co-head of the firm’s National Security practice John Smith, are leading this effort. On the importance of this work, Aki notes, “Given the refugee crises in Syria, it is rewarding to assist Every Shelter in supporting its humanitarian efforts to relieve suffering.”

Learn more about MoFo’s commitment to pro bono here.