The objectives of this overview are to describe the past and potential contributions of birth cohorts to understanding chronic disease aetiology; advance a justification for the maintenance of birth cohorts from low- and middle-income countries (LMIC); provide an audit of birth cohorts from LMIC; and, finally, offer possible future directions for this sphere of research. While the contribution of birth cohorts from affluent societies to understanding disease aetiology has been considerable, we describe several reasons to anticipate why the results from such studies might not be directly applied to LMIC. More than any other developing country, Brazil has a tradition of establishing, maintaining and exploiting birth cohort studies. The clear need for a broader geographical representation may be precipitated by a greater collaboration worldwide in the sharing of ideas, fieldwork experience, and cross-country cohort data comparisons in order to carry out the best science in the most efficient manner. This requires the involvement of a central overseeing body--such as the World Health Organization--that has the respect of all countries and the capacity to develop strategic plans for 'global' life-course epidemiology while addressing such issues as data-sharing. For rapid progress to be made, however, there must be minimal bureaucratic entanglements.