The committee that awards the Nobel Peace Prize likes springing surprises. When Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai won in 2004, the committee explicitly linked peace with concerns about the state of our planet's ecology, a concept that was familiar in environmental circles but rarely discussed elsewhere. Bangladeshi banker and economist Muhammad Yunus won in 2006 for his efforts to alleviate poverty and therefore promote peace through the use of microcredit schemes. Now the prize has gone to a sitting U.S. President just eight months into his first term. Maathai and Yunus tell TIME that Obama is a great choice. Their takes:
"I'm extremely pleased about the news, and I want to warmly congratulate the President. I believe that it's a reflection of not only where we are coming from but where President Obama can take us as leader of the free world and the United States."
On Obama's responsibilities as a Nobel laureate:
"I think the Nobel Committee always looks at what was done before and what one is likely to do with the prize if given in promoting the cause of peace. From the time Obama has taken the office, the way he has dispatched his envoys to the rest of the world to establish peace, the way he has talked to adversaries, the way he has emphasized the need for diplomacy in engaging the rest of the world, I think this is important and this is what the world has welcomed, and I'm sure this is what the Nobel Committee hopes will continue. I'm sure that he has an opportunity to lead us toward a much more peaceful world."
On Obama and the environment:
"I think the U.S. has been largely judged by the reaction to the act of not signing the Kyoto Protocol and also not believing that climate change is a reality. Now look at the U.S. it is engaged, it is supporting the events leading to Copenhagen. There is a bill before the Senate President Obama is supporting it. Obama has not only focused on domestic issues but looked to the world. I think he has shown he is willing to come back, and for the U.S. to provide the leadership on the world stage as far as the environment is concerned. He has really engaged America, shifting from dependence on carbon to low-carbon energy, and all of these are very positive steps, especially [compared with] what was going on in the previous Administration."
On a son of Africa winning the Nobel:
"Kenya has every reason to be proud. Kenya has some fantastic talent. I think President Obama continues to be a great pride for Kenya and Africa, and I hope that, just like when he was elected President, that he will continue to inspire Africa and continue to challenge Africa to manage ourselves better."
"This is great. I think it's something that will encourage Barack Obama to fulfill his commitments, because after all, he made all these commitments. The first thing Barack Obama has completed is to get the world on the right track for peace and multilateralism."
On Obama's responsibilities:
"This is an endorsement for creating a framework for peace. With the prize, he can be even more of an inspiration, because it gives him the greatest honor anyone can receive in the world. The prize has really bet on him, because he has a real chance to bring change."
On whether the Nobel will help or hinder him:
"I think it will help him. Every President goes through pushes and pulls, so he will try to uphold the image of peace the prize has created for him. He's accomplished a lot, even in a short period, including moving toward a nuclear-free world.
On how the prize affects winners:
"For me, it was very important to draw world attention to creating a poverty-free world. People didn't necessarily take it seriously coming from Bangladesh. The prize gave [Grameen Bank] legitimacy. So I'm sure this will only enhance the image and prestige of the President and his work. Whatever policy Barack Obama wants, he will probably now try to bring it in a more peaceful way. Getting this prize at the beginning is important, because it encourages those forces of peace for a lasting framework."
Maathai spoke with Nick Wadhams; Yunus spoke with Gaëlle Faure