Born in Bangladesh in 1936, Abed was educated at Dhaka and Glasgow Universities. The 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh had a profound effect on Abed, then in his thirties, a professional accountant who was holding a senior Corporate Executive position at Shell Oil. The war dramatically changed the direction of his life: he left his job and went to London to devote himself to Bangladesh's War of Independence.
There, Abed helped initiate a campaign called "Help Bangladesh" to organise funds to raise awareness about the war in Bangladesh. The war over, Abed returned to newly independent Bangladesh to find the economy of his country in ruins. Millions of refugees, who had sought shelter in India during the war, started trekking back into the country. Their relief and rehabilitation called for urgent efforts. Abed decided to initiate his own, by setting up BRAC, to rehabilitate returning refugees in a remote area in northeastern Bangladesh. This work led him and BRAC to deal with the long-term task of improving living conditions of the rural poor. He directed his policy towards helping the poor develop their capacity to manage and control their own destiny. Thus, BRAC's primary objectives emerged as alleviation of poverty and empowerment of the poor. Under Abed’s leadership, in the span of only three decades, BRAC grew to become the largest development organisation in the world in terms of the scale and diversity of its interventions.
Abed has received numerous national and international awards for his achievements in leading BRAC, including the David Rockefeller Bridging Leadership Award (2008), the Inaugural Clinton Global Citizen Award (2007), the Henry R. Kravis Prize in Leadership (2007), the Palli Karma Sahayak Foundation (PKSF) Award for Lifetime Achievement in Social Development and Poverty Alleviation (2007), Gates Award for Global Health (2004), UNDP Mahbub ul Haq Award for Outstanding Contribution in Human Development (2004), Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneurship Award (2002), Olof Palme Award (2001), UNICEF's Maurice Pate Award (1992) and the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership (1980).
BRAC has also been awarded the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize (2008), which is the world's largest humanitarian prize, as well as the Swadhinata Puroshkar (2007), the highest state award in Bangladesh.
Abed is recognised by Ashoka as one of the "global greats" and is a founding member of its prestigious Global Academy for Social Entrepreneurship. In 2010 Abed was appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to the Eminent Persons Group for the Least Developed Countries.
Abed has also received several honorary degrees including Doctor of Humane Letters from Yale University in 2007, Doctor of Laws from Columbia University in 2008, Doctor of Letters from the University of Oxford in 2009 and Doctorate of Laws from the University of Bath in 2010. In February 2010, Abed was appointed Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George (KMCG) by the British crown in recognition of his services to reducing poverty in Bangladesh and internationally.