Accompanying the call for increased evidence-based policy the developed world is implementing more longitudinal panel studies which periodically gather information about the same people over a number of years. Panel studies distinguish between transitory and persistent states (e.g. poverty, unemployment) and facilitate causal explanations of relationships between variables. However, they are complex and costly. A growing number of developing countries are now implementing or considering starting panel studies. The objectives of this paper are to identify challenges that arise in panel studies, and to give examples of how these have been addressed in resource-constrained environments. The main issues considered are: the development of a conceptual framework which links macro and micro contexts; sampling the cohort in a cost-effective way; tracking individuals; ethics and data management and analysis. Panel studies require long term funding, a stable institution and an acceptance that there will be limited value for money in terms of results from early stages, with greater benefits accumulating in the study's mature years. Copyright © 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.